As you may already know from my earlier post, Functional Fertility is used to dive deeper into root causes that may be contributing to the underlying health issues that could make it more difficult for you to get pregnant. When we improve these root causes, we improve success rates of conceiving. One root cause that I’ve seen become increasingly more common with my clients is digestive issues. By the end of this blog, you will understand how to optimize your digestion to improve your fertility.
How Is Digestion Connected to Fertility?
When it comes to your health, digestion is really where it all starts. Remember that saying, “you are what you eat?” Well, it’s more like, “you are what your gut can DIGEST and ABSORB!” If your body is digesting and absorbing food/supplements properly, then you’re well on your way to supporting your fertility! But, if your body struggles to digest properly or absorb nutrients, it won’t matter how many fertility-fueling foods and supplements you take – you’ll still likely be deficient in key nutrients that support your fertility and overall health. So, as you can see, the health of your gastrointestinal tract has a significant impact on your fertility.
The Importance of Stomach Acid
“Think of your digestion like putting together some IKEA furniture: if the first step isn’t done properly, then your furniture will probably end up having some major structural issues that can only be held together with wood glue for so long. Making sure your digestion is starting off on the right path from the very first step can help prevent or heal overall gut function and improve fertility.”
-Olivia Mitchell, Fueling Fertility Founder
Digestion begins with chewing your food. While you chew, your saliva helps further break down your food. Once the food reaches your stomach, your stomach uses its acidic, digestive fluid (called hydrochloric acid) to break down your food. Your food then travels to your gut, where nutrient absorption takes place. Your stomach acid also contains digestive enzymes, such as pepsin, that break down proteins into digestible amino acids. It also kills anything potentially harmful in the food you eat before it reaches your gut. (1)
When you have low stomach acid, called hypochlorhydria or achlorhydria, you can experience a lot of undesirable symptoms. One of the most confusing things about hypochlorhydria is that it shows up as heartburn-like symptoms, making people think that they actually have high stomach acid, like GERD and indigestion. Because you have less digestive enzymes in your stomach to help you break down and digest your food, you will have fewer nutrients to absorb. Thus, hypochlorhydria can quickly lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies that may go unnoticed for years.
An early symptom of hypochlorhydria is bloating after meals due to the body’s inability to properly break down and absorb foods, especially foods high in protein. Anecdotally, I have noticed in my practice that women who cut out meat because it makes them bloated actually are suffering from low stomach acid and cutting out meat is making the problem worse. When we correct this, these women are able to enjoy high quality, protein-rich foods without experiencing digestive issues. By addressing this root cause, they report feeling so much better because they are actually able to use the amino acids in their food and are absorbing nutrients that support their fertility like B12, iron, folate, and fat soluble vitamins like D, E, and K.
With hypochlorhydria, it’s possible that bacteria and other pathogens aren’t killed by your stomach acid and make their way into your large and small intestine, which could lead to chronic inflammation, allergies, leaky gut (damage to the lining of your gut which would allow these pathogens to enter your bloodstream causing all sorts of harm), dysbiosis (disruption to the balance of good bacteria in your gut), or even a GI infection such as E. coli, salmonella, H. pylori, or SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth).
If hypochlorhydria goes untreated, there is a cascading effect down your gastrointestinal tract. There is a close relationship between the gut and the immune system. So, when your GI tract isn’t functioning properly, it actually can affect your immune system, which can lead to autoimmune disorders, allergies, skin problems, and ultimately take a toll on your fertility potential.
Here’s a complete list of the symptoms to be on the look out for if you suspect you have low stomach acid:
- Heartburn, indigestion, or acid reflux
- Nausea when taking supplements
- Feeling too full after meals
- Feeling cold or lethargic after a meal
- Undigested food in your stool
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Chronic nutrient deficiencies that don’t resolve even with supplementation
- Hair loss and brittle nails
- Gut issues (such as leaky gut, dysbiosis, or gut infections)
- Autoimmunity or family history of autoimmunity
- Skin issues (such as acne, eczema, psoriasis)
Excerpt From The Fueling Fertility Tribe
The link between gut health and fertility for both men and women is impressively widespread. Inflammation stemming from leaky gut and dysbiosis impairs follicular growth and activity, worsens PCOS, and impacts the corpus luteum, which is where the majority of progesterone is made. Low progesterone can show up as a short luteal phase, PMS, heavy period, breast pain, and of course… trouble getting pregnant. There is also animal study evidence that supports this type of inflammation causing primary ovarian insufficiency. Also researchers have observed in animal studies a similar effect in the endometrium which results in a negative effect on implantation rates and placental development.(3)
The same inflammation can also affect male fertility by activating immune cells in the testicles and impairing the enzymes responsible for making hormones like testosterone, which can diminish sperm health. This cascade of inflammation potentially also generates oxidative stress which can damage sperm DNA and lead to poor sperm quality and miscarriage.
Hypochlorhydria And Hormones
If your body doesn’t have enough stomach acid, then it can’t absorb vital nutrients your body needs (4) for healthy egg production, ovulation, and implantation, which are obviously necessary for conception. Further, nutrient deficiencies tell your body that it doesn’t have what it needs to properly support you and a growing baby during pregnancy, which is what I call “no place for baby” mode. Long term nutrient deficiencies can also contribute to complications during pregnancy and not provide a baby with all of the support for development that is needed.
Specifically, the nutrients affected most are zinc, iron, B12, and magnesium. All of these are necessities for hormone production.
What Causes Hypochlorhydria?
Low stomach acid doesn’t just happen overnight. Usually, there’s an underlying issue and hypochlorhydria is just a symptom that you may or may not be aware of. Some of these root causes include:
- Chronic stress – One of the most common causes I’ve seen. When you are chronically stressed, your body is in fight-or-flight mode, not in rest-and-digest mode.
- Low protein intake or long term vegetarian/vegan diet
- Chronic inflammation
- Heavy alcohol intake
- High intake of processed foods
- Malnutrition or extreme calorie restriction
- History of antibiotic usage or heavy NSAID use
- Long-term use of antacids or proton-pump inhibitors
If any of these apply to you, then it might be time to work on optimizing your stomach acid levels or work with a functional medicine practitioner who can help. Unfortunately, since low stomach acid feels a lot like heartburn (for some) most allopathic doctors will recommend a stomach acid REDUCER (like Zantac) which, like I mentioned above, only exacerbates the problem!
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The HCL Challenge
While there is no easy test to confirm if stomach acid levels are indeed high or low, there is an at-home “challenge” you can use to get an idea of where you stand and thus how to address your unique needs.
This challenge is something that I do quite often with fertility clients and I would recommend only doing this under the guidance of a trained practitioner. If you are thinking that you may have hypochlorhydria, this at-home challenge can allow you to see if your body has the appropriate amount of hydrochloric acid for optimal digestion.
DISCLAIMER: please consult your practitioner before beginning any supplements. Those who have or have had stomach ulcer(s) should not take this supplement.
Here are the instructions (the link below will take you to the full protocol of my online supplement dispensary):
- Purchase Digestive Enzymes Ultra w/ Betaine
- Begin by taking 1 capsule with each meal that contains at least 20 gm protein. You should feel a burning or warming sensation in your stomach or upper abdomen. You may also feel slightly “acidic,” or as though you have indigestion.
- If no reaction is felt after taking one capsule, repeat the process the following day with 2 pills with each meal that contains at least 20 gm protein. If you still do not feel anything, continue to increase by one pill per meal until you feel any change in your digestive system or you reach the maximum of 8 pills per meal.
- Once you reach the point at which you feel the warming or burning sensation it’s important to not cease taking the capsules. In fact, you have just uncovered your level of deficiency. Instead, simply take one less pill the next day and remain at this number of pills daily until the warming sensation returns.
- Continue to decrease in this manner by one pill each time you feel the warming sensation. This weaning down process restores your stomach acid levels.
To recap: you will increase steadily by one pill daily until you reach the burning/warming point and slowly wean yourself off the pills by decreasing your dosage by one pill each time the sensation returns. Be patient and stick with it. This process will ensure you have just the right amount of stomach acid – not too much and not too little – for excellent digestion and absorption of fertility-fueling nutrients.
If you indeed find that you are needing to reach levels of 4+ HCL pills with meals during the challenge, then it may be time to optimize those stomach acid levels.
Ways To Optimize Stomach Acid Levels
My number #1 tip to reduce stomach acid:
REDUCE YOUR STRESS!
If you’re battling low stomach acid, you can practice many of the tips I suggest below and find some relief. But if your stress remains unmanaged, all of these things will simply be a bandaid.
My second favorite recommendation: The “Ginger Pickle”
This recipe is one that anyone can do to support a strong digestion. The “Ginger Pickle” can help the body produce its own stomach acid rather than relying on supplementation like the suggestions below.
Recipe and Directions:
- One full ginger root (the size would cover the palm of your hand), peeled and shredded with a carrot shaver or cheese grater
- Juice of one organic lemon
- 1 teaspoon Himalayan pink salt.
- Mix together and put in a jar. Let “pickle” overnight.
- Chew and then spit out ½ – 1 teaspoon before bigger meals daily for 2-4 weeks.
Other Easy Ways to Improve Digestion
- Drink 16 oz of room temperature, filtered water with 2 teaspoons of raw organic apple cider vinegar upon waking and 5 minutes before your meals. This may lower the pH of your stomach acid, which would help digestion. Never drink apple cider vinegar undiluted because it can damage the enamel on your teeth.
- Try some digestive bitters to help stimulate your digestive enzymes. Before your meal, put some digestive bitters into some sparkling water (I love Topo Chico) with a squeeze of lemon. If you forget, you can also enjoy them after your meal. This can be especially helpful with a large or protein-rich meal.
- Chew your food! While there’s no magic number here, try to chew each bite of food at least 10 times before swallowing. Better breakdown of your food in the mouth leads to better digestion in the stomach.
- Increase consumption of garlic. Allium, a substance that occurs naturally in garlic, helps prevent ulcers caused by the h. pylori bacteria.
- Decrease consumption of coffee, tea, tobacco, sugar, alcohol, spices from hot peppers/hot sauce, fried foods and other processed foods – all of these deplete stomach acid and thin the gut lining. A diet rich in fruits and veggies can help lower inflammation and boost your stomach acid.
- Give your body time to digest by eating dinner at least 2-3 hours before bed. Also, try to go to bed before 10 pm when digestion becomes active again.
- Avoid drinking more than 6 oz of water (or other liquid) with meals to avoid diluting your digestion power during that meal. Try to wait 30-45 minutes after your meals. Do your best to hydrate yourself in between meals.
Low stomach acid, or hypochlorhydria, can contribute to nutrient deficiencies that can have an impact on one’s fertility, but with a functional approach that addresses your particular root causes it can be resolved. There are plenty of options to get your digestive system on track and improve your fertility potential. Addressing low stomach acid is just one example of taking a root cause approach to optimize your fertility. Consider working with someone trained in the root cause approach in order to address any possible chronic nutrient deficiencies and other health consequences that may be a part of your fertility journey.
If you are wanting more information on hypochlorhydria or want my help addressing your root causes, you can take the perfect program fit quiz here to see which Functional Fertility program is best for you.
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