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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All About HCL agutsygirl.com #hcl #stomachacid

First, here are all the 3 main posts about HCL I have written up to this point:

  1. How to Test at Home for Low Stomach Acid HCL Challenge
  2. 11 Ways to Naturally Improve Stomach Acid Production
  3. 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)

Click HERE to save these steps for later.

How to Take HCl the stomach acid challenge with A Gutsy Girl agutsygirl.com

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.

Betaine HCl

When you hear HC, 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.

Break Down ingredients betaine hcl

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.)

All About HCL agutsygirl.com #hcl #stomachacid #bloat

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

  1. 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)
  2. Integrative Therapeutics Betaine HCL 1.3g with pepsin (you can also save 15% off this one through my Fullscript dispensary HERE)
  3. Pure Encapsulations Betaine HCl Pepsin 520mg

Tracking Stomach Acid

When it comes to hydrochloric acid and increasing stomach acid, my #1 tool for understanding my own body’s response is the 28-day gut healing journaling SYSTEM I created.

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 – don’t worry – full access to the journaling key can be found in the journal).

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.

I hope this article has been helpful to you.

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy:

  1. A Gutsy Girl’s Bible: an approach to healing the gut
  2. Why Does My Stomach Hurt?
  3. A Gutsy Girl’s Master Guide to Prokinetics


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  1. Hi there! Thanks for this helpful article. I have found a list of foods to add to increase stomach acid, but are there any foods to avoid that neutralize stomach acid too much? I feel like oats neutralize and stop my digestion. Not sure if it’s mental, but any insight is helpful! Thanks!

    1. Hi Morgan – I’m not sure about that. There are foods that are “alkalizing,” like olive oil, spinach, and celery, but I’m not certain they would stop digestion (if they aren’t high FODMAP – like avocado, which is an alkalizing food). That said, oats are actually more acidic than non, which is why you might not do well with them. Thanks for stopping by. Xox

  2. Hi,

    My name is Hannah Wilcher, I am the Outreach Coordinator at YooHealth.

    I just wanted to send you a quick email to let you know that I recently published a very comprehensive blog post titled “ The Comprehensive Guide to Sleep Deprivation: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment” While browsing your site, I noticed you linked to a same topic -https://www.sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need page from this page http://agutsygirl.com/2016/04/19/sleep-and-gut-healing/.

    I believe my piece is very comprehensive, (Over 5500 words – Many hours of research & writing) updated and quotes trustable sources. 

    Given your experience I would love to know your opinion on the article. And if you’ll find it useful, please consider referencing it from your post, or perhaps mentioning it in your future writing. 

    Here is the link for your review:


    Thanks in advance for your time, and please let me know if you have any questions. I look forward to reading more of your stuff.


    Hannah Wilcher 

    Outreach Coordinator

    Click if you don’t want to receive emails or comments about your website from me. Unsubscribe

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