I still get many questions about HCL so I decided to write an all-in-one, all about HCL post.
HCL (with Pepsin) has been a game changer for me personally. Low stomach acid was a main factor in my SIBO and then subsequent relapses of it.
When I was first diagnosed with SIBO in 2014, I could take upwards of 8 HCL with Pepsin pills at higher-protein meals and still not barely feel an ounce of burning.
These days I’m down to about 2. I stay consistent with 1-2 vs. going up so that I never get lazy with taking them.
In this post, I’m going to share with you: what it is, how to tell if you have low stomach acid, how to take it (the pill version), and who should not take it.
All About HCL
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First, here are all the 3 main posts about HCL I have written up to this point:
- How to Test at Home for Low Stomach Acid HCL Challenge
- 11 Ways to Naturally Improve Stomach Acid Production
- 33 Ways to Tell if You Have Low Stomach Acid
All three posts are very comprehensive, and if you haven’t read them yet, I’d recommend starting there.
What is HCL?
HCL = Hydrochloric Acid
According to my studies through the ADAPT program, here is the formal definition,
The stomach produces hydrochloric acid as part of the normal digestive process. The breakdown and absorption of nutrients occurs at an optimum rate only within a narrow range of acidity in the stomach. If there isn’t enough acid, the normal chemical reactions required to absorb nutrients are impaired. Hydrochloric acid is required for proper digestion of protein, carbohydrates, and fat, as well as efficient absorption of vitamins and minerals. Low stomach acid production can be caused by H. pylori infection (the bacterium that causes ulcers), stress, acid-suppressing drugs, a vegetarian or vegan diet, and advancing age.
Chris Kresser also makes note that,
While many people assume that GERD and heartburn are caused by too much stomach acid, research suggests that’s not the case. In fact, in my clinical experience, I’ve found that low stomach acid is a far more likely cause of these conditions.
How to Tell if You Have Low Stomach Acid?
In all 3 posts I’ve previously written about low stomach acid and HCL, I have provided ample ways to tell if you have low stomach acid. If you want the simple and quick version, according to Chris Kresser, here are some (not an exhaustive list):
GI tract: feeling of fullness after meals (especially high-protein meals), gas and belching one to three hours after meals, acid reflux or burning sensation in the throat, nausea, constipation, undigested food in the stool, bad breath, food sensitivities
Skin, nails, and hair: acne vulgaris, acne rosacea, eczema, dry skin, dry/brittle nails, hair loss in women
Systemic (from malabsorption of micronutrients): chronic fatigue, anemia, hypoglycemia, neuropathy, difficulty concentrating, poor memory
How to Take HCL (pill version)
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First and foremost, you need to know and be very clear and certain if you do or do not need to take it to help with digestion.
Work with your doctor on this (or do the at-home HCL challenge if you don’t fall into any of the categories below). Taking hydrochloric acid when you don’t need it is a huge mistake that could cause further damage to the GI lining.
Besides that, here are some other things to know.
When you hear HCL, you’ll also hear it in conjunction with betaine and pepsin.
So I want to break these down so you understand what they are, too.
Betaine is an amino acid. Dr. Axe says, “Its most crucial role is to help the body process fats.”
When combined with Hydrochloric acid, the chemical compound betaine hydrochloride is produced in laboratories. This compound is known to help increase stomach acid.
HCL with Pepsin
According to the NIH,
Pepsin is a stomach enzyme that serves to digest proteins found in ingested food. Gastric chief cells secrete pepsin as an inactive zymogen called pepsinogen. Parietal cells within the stomach lining secrete hydrochloric acid that lowers the pH of the stomach. A low pH (1.5 to 2) activates pepsin.
If you need to increase your stomach acid, then you must make sure you’re the HCL you’re taking includes pepsin. Without pepsin, you are not likely to gain the full benefits of hydrochloric acid.
Is HCL a Strong Acid?
Yes, hydrochloric acid, in and of itself, is strong.
HCL chemistry breaks down like this:
When HCl molecules dissolve they dissociate into H+ ions and Cl- ions.
HCl is a strong acid because it dissociates almost completely.
By contrast, a weak acid like acetic acid (CH3COOH) does not dissociate well in water – many H+ ions remain bound-up within the molecule.
Additionally, though, there is the pepsin which is added.
So, yes, these are strong. Therefore, only take HCL with higher-protein meals.
For example, if you have pasta with red sauce, you would not take it. If you have pasta with chicken and red sauce, you would take it.
Taking hydrochloric acid without protein could prove to be a painful experience.
Make sure you’re taking the correct amount.
If you’re not taking enough, you’re not deriving the benefits. And if you take too much, your stomach will burn. (p.s. If the stomach burning happens, chug as much water as you can until the burning subsides.)
Who Should NOT Take HCL?
Even though I’m a huge advocate of HCL, there are definitely some people who should not supplement with it.
Some of these people where hydrochloric acid is contraindicated include:
- Those with an ulcer
- People who are taking any type of NSAIDs
Be sure to take special note if you fall in either of these categories.
HCL Products I Have Used
- Break Down (this is the digestive enzyme from my line at guthealingsupplements.com – the nice thing about this is that not only are you getting the enzymes to help break your food down, but you’re also getting a little Betaine HCL – just 200mg)
- Integrative Therapeutics Betaine HCL 1.3g with pepsin
- Pure Encapsulations Betaine HCl Pepsin 520mg
The perfect combination of digestive enzymes + Betaine HCL.
Tracking Stomach Acid
When it comes to hydrochloric acid and increasing stomach acid, my #1 tool for understanding my own body’s response was the 90-day gut healing journal.
Whenever I took (er, still take!) my HCL, I write down the food eaten in conjunction with it (denoted with the “F” from your key).
Then, on the line beneath it, I write (S) HCL x (however many I took with it). After that, I make note of any symptoms (because if you are going to react to it – i.e. it’s too much acid, you’ll know almost immediately).
So it looks like this:
- F: 1/2 cup chicken, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, olive oil, white rice
- S: 3 x HCL, (etc. whatever other supplements you might take at mealtime)
- G: no burning at all
*** G = a gut symptom. The key in your journal is filled with different things to note. You can grab the PDF e-journal for immediate download HERE or have a physical, spiral-bound copy of the journal shipped directly to you HERE.
I hope this article has been helpful to you.
If you liked this post, you might also enjoy:
- A Gutsy Girl’s Bible: an approach to healing the gut
- Why Does My Stomach Hurt?
- A Gutsy Girl’s Master Guide to Prokinetics
You will heal. I will help.