StomachWhy stomach acid is super powerful

Most of us won’t go through our lives without the occasional episode of heartburn or acid reflux. And when the acid stings your throat or burns your chest, you may find yourself wondering just how strong the substance is.

Read more: Stomach pain? Your gut bacteria may be to blame

To find out, let’s turn to pH scalewhich measures how acidic or alkaline (basic) a given solution is.

The scale ranges from 0 to 14, with anything hovering around a value of 7 — like most drinking water — considered neutral. A substance with a pH lower than this, such as vinegar, is acidic; anything higher, like household bleach, is alkaline.

Both strongly acidic and strongly alkaline substances can, of course, be corrosive.

The pH of stomach acid (also called stomach acid) usually ranges from about 1.5 to 2. The reason it is so strong is that the specialized stomach cells – the so-called parietal cells — actually produce a small amount of hydrochloric acid in your stomach.

Iron stomach

Anyone who has taken a high school chemistry course will be familiar with this strong acid. As your teacher probably warned you, putting hydrochloric acid on human skin is bad: it will immediately begin to dissolve the tissue.

Mark Derlett, gastroenterologist and clinical associate professor of medicine at University of Washington Medical Center, says that acid is produced in response to both the anticipation of food and the actual ingestion of it. The response is driven by the vagus nerve as well as hormones such as gastrin and histamine.

The reason this acid doesn’t eat away at your stomach lining is because the stomach also produces a protective layer of bicarbonate and mucus. The first substance is alkaline, which neutralizes acids.

However, the corrosive effects of stomach acid can take over—if you’re not careful. Certain types of medication, Derlett says, can inhibit the body’s production of this protective layer, exposing the stomach to possible acid damage.

Particularly harmful (if taken in excess) are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or, as you will usually see on drug warning labels, NSAIDs. These include aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, and more.

Although these drugs are effective in reducing fever, inflammation and pain, they also put people at risk of ulcers: painful sores that can form on the lining of the stomach, esophagus or small intestine.

Stream state

Every time you consume food, the concentration of stomach acid decreases, says Derleth. Then, when the digested food leaves the stomach, the acid concentration is reversed.

Antacids like Tums, which typically use calcium carbonate as the main active ingredient, work to neutralize acid in cases of heartburn or indigestion. Similarly, drugs such as famotidine (brand names such as Pepcid) and omeprazole (brand names such as Prilosec) can reduce stomach acid secretion.

When it comes to acid reflux, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD, the symptoms are not caused by overproduction of acid. Instead, they’re due to where that acid ends up—your esophagus and throat.

In addition to the occasional use of medication to relieve reflux symptoms, Derleth recommends some lifestyle changes, such as waiting two to three hours after your last bite to go to bed. Elevating the head of your bed can also help, as can losing weight and cutting back on caffeine, alcohol and nicotine.

Read more: If marijuana is giving you an upset stomach, you’re not alone


Other health conditions can also destabilize normal acid concentrations, Derleth says.

These include common chronic stomach infections, such as those caused by Helicobacter pylori bacteria. Zollinger-Ellison syndromea rare condition associated with a tumor called a gastrinoma can also greatly increase the amount of acid in your stomach.

Problems can also arise from the absence enough acid. Although production often declines slightly with age, conditions such as autoimmune atrophic gastritis can further limit acid production and lead to upper GI symptoms such as indigestion.

Upper GI symptoms that don’t respond to lifestyle or short-term treatment should prompt a visit to a health care provider, Derleth says, especially if they’re “red flag” symptoms. These include difficulty swallowing, a feeling that food is stuck in the esophagus, and a constant feeling of fullness even at the beginning of a meal.

So the next time you reach for a bottle of Tums, think about the science behind the acid bubbling in your belly.

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