Stomach acid, or gastric acid, is a watery, colorless fluid that’s produced by your stomach’s lining.
It’s highly acidic and helps break down food for easier digestion. This helps your body absorb nutrients more easily as food moves through your digestive tract.
In order to break down everything from meat to tough, fibrous plants, stomach acid has to be highly acidic.
Your body is designed to handle normal levels of stomach acid so it doesn’t cause you any illness or health complications.
Sometimes, however, those systems fail. Having gastric juices with low or high levels of acidity can be problematic.
Keep reading to find out how strong stomach acid is and what happens when your body makes stomach acid that’s too strong or too weak.
Stomach acid encounters a lot of things on behalf of your body. It breaks down the foods you eat into easier-to-digest particles. It also acts as the first line of defense against pathogens and microbes that could make you sick.
These actions require a liquid that’s quite acidic. But just how acidic?
To really understand how strong stomach acid is, you’ll first need to understand how a liquid’s acid level is measured.
Acidity is measured on a pH scale. This scale ranges from 0 to 14. The lower the pH level, the stronger the fluid’s acidic levels.
For example, battery acid has a pH of 0. It’s a highly potent acid. The least acidic fluids are at 14. They’re called alkaline liquids. In the middle at 7.0 are neutral fluids, like pure water.
Stomach acid has a pH between 1 and 2. That makes it quite acidic.
Keep in mind that battery acid can dissolve materials like metal and bone. Stomach acid, with its pH balance only one or two spots higher, can also do great damage to some of the strongest materials, like bones and teeth.
Stomach acid’s low pH level is largely attributable to one ingredient: hydrochloric acid (HCl).
However, there’s only a very small amount of HCl in stomach acid. Other components include potassium chloride (KCl) and sodium chloride (NaCl).
The cells lining your stomach wall secrete this acidic trio. The cells also release several enzymes and mucus.
This mucus is vitally important to the process. It protects the lining of your stomach so the acid and other gastric juices don’t damage the sensitive organ.
It’s normal for your stomach acid’s acidic level to fluctuate from time to time.
Certain situations, like medication and stress, can interfere with this all-important fluid. That may prevent your body from producing as much HCl.
Symptoms of low HCl levels
When this happens, you may begin to experience symptoms like:
But if your stomach acid is chronically low, you may have a condition called hypochlorhydria.
The complications of chronically low levels of acid can be quite significant. The early stages of this condition can result in difficulties digesting food and absorbing the nutrients your body needs to function properly.
If left untreated, it can damage your gastrointestinal (GI) system. This increases your risk for infections and chronic health issues.
Treatment for low HCl levels
The exact treatment for low acid gastric juices will depend on the likely cause.
Your doctor may prescribe an HCl supplement. This can increase your stomach acid’s pH level. They may also prescribe medications with the enzyme pepsin. This enzyme helps increase stomach acidity.
Other treatments include:
If the level of acid in your gastric juices is too high, the mucus in your stomach may stop being effective.
High stomach acid levels can lead to a number of complications, including:
- gastric ulcers
- acid reflux
- gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Symptoms of high HCl levels
The most obvious symptoms of high stomach acid levels include:
- nausea or vomiting
- abdominal discomfort that may be worse on an empty stomach
- decreased appetite
- unexplained weight loss
Treatment for high HCl levels
High stomach acid is most commonly treated with medication. Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) work to lower stomach acid. Your doctor may prescribe PPIs by themselves. Sometimes PPIs are prescribed with other medications.
Other treatments will depend on the suspected cause of these high acid levels. These treatments may include:
A number of conditions, medications, and lifestyle factors can cause acid level fluctuations. While some fluctuations are normal, not all are.
Additionally, chronically low or high levels of acid can be problematic for your health and well-being. Seeking treatment can prevent long-term complications.
Causes of low HCl levels
Certain conditions increase your risk for low acid levels. These risk factors include:
- premature birth
- being over 65
- having stomach surgery
- experiencing high levels of stress
- nutrient deficiencies, especially zinc
- having an infection caused by H. pylori
- chronic illness
Causes of high HCl levels
Likewise, certain factors can increase your odds of having high stomach acid levels. These include:
- overproduction of certain hormones that are known to trigger stomach acid production
- rebound stomach acid production after stopping medications to lower stomach acid
- an H. pylori infection
- gastric outlet obstruction
- tumors (but this is rare)
If you think you’re experiencing symptoms of either high or low levels of stomach acid, make an appointment to see your doctor.
Stomach acid is a highly acidic liquid your body naturally produces to help you digest and absorb nutrients in food. Your body also produces enzymes and mucus to help protect your body from the acid’s strength.
High levels of stomach acid can lead to heartburn, acid reflux, and eventually ulcers. Low levels of stomach acid may impair your ability to digest food.
Seek medical attention if you’re showing signs of low or high levels of acid. Both of these can be problematic if they’re chronic and not treated properly.
Your doctor can review your symptoms and decide the best treatment for you. In some cases, they may look for underlying health issues, like an infection, that could be contributing to the altered acid levels.