This article is not intended to diagnose or treat any diseases.
Due diligence is a necessary part of the healing process. If you believe you are worth the effort, then seek the knowledge you need to reveal the truth.
In the world of functional medicine and nutrition we use a large array of herbs, vitamins, minerals, amino acids and other biological substances to restore function and support healing. Most of the supplements we use are fairly safe. Even when the diagnosis is incorrect or if a side effect occurs, most reactions will resolve quickly with no permanent harm. However, there is a handful of supplements that can cause, at best, a setback and, on occasion, significant side effects. Betaine hydrochloride (HCl) is one of them. When used appropriately and under the correct diagnosis, Betaine HCl can have seemingly magical effects on conditions like acne, eczema, asthma, idiopathic malnutrition, GERD and other digestive issues. However, a visit to most mainstream medical websites will advise you, “Do not take Betaine HCL”. This is with good reason. Betaine HCL can exacerbate several underlying health conditions and, in rare instances, can cause life-threatening health issues.
Betaine HCL is used to treat a condition called hypochlorhydria (insufficiently strong stomach acid). Although it hasn’t been subject to rigorous clinical trials, here is the simplified hypothesis; when acid is the stomach is not strong enough (pH between 1.5 and 3.5) animal protein cannot be effectively digested into amino acids and smaller protein fragments. As a result, the stomach somehow detects this problem and continues to produce weak acid. The weak acid fills up past the stomach and into the esophagus. Unlike the iron-clad lining of the stomach, the esophagus is easily damaged by acid. The thinking is that Betaine HCl works by restoring the correct pH (increasing the acidity) of stomach acid. When the correct dosage achieved, the excess production of weak acid stops and normal digestion of protein and minerals resumes. If the correct dose is not achieved, supplementing with Betaine HCl has little value. Practitioners, here is a link to a method that was originally presented by Jonathan Wright M.D. on how to figure out the correct dose of Betaine HCl. As the author describes, most cases require no more than 2500mg for reestablishing adequate acid levels. I have seen a few cases where the replacement dose was over 6000mg per meal.
Accurate Diagnosis is Crucial
There are many downstream health issues that can arise from inadequate digestion of protein. These include IBS, excessive flatulence, leaky gut syndrome, asthma, acne, allergies, eczema, acid reflux, idiopathic malnutrition, premature osteoporosis etc. There are scientifically sound explanations for each of these that we will discuss another time. However, any of these conditions can be caused by other factors and, none of them is a defining symptom of low stomach acid (hypochlorhydria).
Most importantly, acid reflux, often diagnosed as GERD, is NOT a pathognomonic symptom of hypochlorhydria. The exact same symptoms can be caused by overgrowth of bacteria and in small intestine, excess production of acid, stagnation of the motor migrating complex and, more commonly, by excess histamine. This is why decades of research produced two classes of drugs to treat GERD. These are the proton pump inhibitors (PPI’s) and H2 blockers (Histamine receptor blockers). It can be implied that the effectiveness of these two categories of drugs in treating symptoms can shed some clarity on the root of the problem. In more complex cases, hypochlorhydria and excess histamine will occur simultaneously.
The Big Cautions With Betaine HCl
Esophageal Damage and Strictures
Pills of Betaine HCl can get lodged in areas where the esophagus has narrowed from scar tissue or has shrunk from old age. This usually causes a strong, sharp pain. If the pill remains for more than a couple of minutes, it can literally burn the area. If this happens, the irritation can last several days and it is best to discontinue the course of Betaine HCl therapy until it is completely healed. To prevent damage to the esophagus in cases like these, it is crucial to flush the area until the pill is small enough to move on. This can be done by sipping a weak solution of baking soda in warm water (1/4 tsp per 12 oz of water) OR by diluting a full dose of a liquid antacid in warm water. DO NOT use baking soda if the patient has high blood pressure. This scenario is more common in elderly patients and it is better to break up the Betaine HCl capsules before swallowing them. As a general rule, if this happens, don’t hesitate to seek medical attention.
Exacerbation of Gastritis
Gastritis is inflammation of the stomach lining. It has many causes but ultimately occurs because the cells lining the stomach cannot replace themselves quickly enough to maintain the integrity of the tissue. When this happens, any small amount of acid can quickly damage the lining. This is a potentially dangerous situation as ulcers can form. Possible causes include excessive alcohol consumption, use of corticosteroids and NSAIDS, stress, excess acid production, nutritional deficiencies, excess levels of histamine and infection.
Combine a stomach that is severely irritated by excess histamine and add Betaine HCl and you have yourself a new condition that can take several weeks to fully heal.
Symptoms of gastritis can easily go unnoticed. This is especially true for people who are busy, overwhelmed and/or highly driven. I meet people all the time in my practice who have had low to mid-grade symptoms of gastritis for years without giving it a single consideration that something could be wrong. This can also happen because some people have an altered perception of pain in their digestive tract. Nerve blocks and cauterizations as well as medications, like antidepressants, narcotics and opioids, can reduce pain sensations. Practitioners! Confirm your diagnosis before prescribing Betaine HCl and proceed cautiously with the dose. DO NOT assume that patients will notice side effects immediately.
A True Story of a Gastritis Nightmare
More than a decade ago, I had a nutrition consultation with a gentleman who had clear signs of gastritis. Although he didn’t think so, his lifestyle was extremely stressful. He was founder and CEO of a very successful chain of stores. He worked long hours and traveled frequently. Drinking too much alcohol was one way he compensated for the stress. His symptoms manifested as a dull ache (fairly mild) above his naval that was worse on an empty stomach, with water, with spicy food and about 20 minutes after eating (food usually absorbs acid for a few minutes before the stomach makes more). He denied any sign of dark, tarry pieces in his stool (a sign of bleeding in the digestive system). At the time of our meeting, he was preparing to leave for a big game hunting trip in east Africa. I insisted that he consult a physician before departing. His first week in the African bush he developed anemia as a result of a bleeding ulcer. It took several days for him to reach a facility with adequate medical care. He ended up having to have surgery and, more unfortunately, a blood transfusion that left him with a lifelong disease.