Gut health is a growing health craze for good reason. Digestive issues are a widespread problem affecting roughly one out or every three adults that contributes to millions of doctor visits in the United States every year. In an effort to improve their digestive health, Americans have become obsessed with probiotics or “friendly” bacteria. In addition to spending over $2 billion each year on probiotic supplements, there is also a growing rise in sales fermented foods like yogurt, kombucha, and sauerkraut. It is becoming popular to add probiotics to many other foods and beverages, as well including chocolate, nutrition bars, smoothies, and juice.


Marketing would have us believe that probiotics are the answer to all gut issues and there is no question that they are important considerations. But, do they always represent the best natural solution for common digestive complaints? Not really.

Improving Gut Health Beyond Probiotics
The simple truth is that the benefits that many people are looking for in improving their digestive complaints with probiotics, are better achieved with the use of other natural digestive aids, especially enzymes. Probiotics are living organisms that can have beneficial effects on digestive health, but they are not very effective in dealing with many common digestive complaints like the irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) as well as indigestion, gas, bloating, and food intolerances. The reason is simple: probiotics do not digest food.


The real issue and the underlining cause of most gut discomforts, is not digesting food properly. Most people compound the problem by choosing to simply block symptoms with an over-the-counter acid-blocking drug while others will jump on the probiotic bandwagon only to be disappointed. And many others will simply suffer though the embarrassing and uncomfortable effects of improper digestion, because they feel they have tried everything and nothing has worked. The reality is that they have not tried everything, they have just not tried the right product.

Lack of Stomach Acid and Pepsin

Although much is said about hyperacidity conditions, lack of gastric acid secretion is a more common cause of indigestion. Studies indicate a kack of stomach acid may affect more than 15% of the general population. And in people over 40 it is even higher, maybe as high as four in every ten peeople! Lack of hydrochloric acid (HCL)  production is a common cause of indigestion in the over 40 age group.

The stomach’s optimal pH range for digestion is 1.5-2.5. The use of antacids and acid-blocker drugs will typically raise the pH above 3.5. Although raising the pH can reduce symptoms, it blocks the effects of both HCL and pepsin, a key enzyme involved in protein digestion.

In addition to HCL being necessary for protein digestion, it also encourages the flow of bile and pancreatic enzymes. HCL also aids in the absorption of many nutrients, including folate, vitamin B12, ascorbic acid, beta-caroten, calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc.

It should be clear that without HCL and pepsin proper protein digestion and the absorption of many nutrients will not occur. A lack of HCL and/or pepsin can also negatively affect the gut’s microbial flora including the promotion of an overgrowth of the bacteria Helicobacter pylori that is associated with ulcer formation.

There are many signs and symptoms that suggest lack of HCL secretion, and a number of specific health conditions have been found to be associated with insufficient gastric acid output, especially conditions linked to a “leaky gut” like psoriasis, autoimmune disorders, and thyroid disease.

Common Signs and Symptoms of Low Gastric Acidity

  • Bloating, belching, burning, and flatulence immediately after meals
  • A sense of `fullness’ after eating
  • Indigestion, diarrhea or constipation
  • Peeling, weak, and cracked fingernails
  • Chronic intestinal parasites or abnormal flora
  • Undigested food in stool
  • Chronic candida infections

The best way to determine the most effective dose of HCL is using this challenge method:

  • Start by taking one capsule with your meals for two days. If this does not aggravate symptoms, on day three  increase the dosage to two capsules at meals for a day.
  • Continue to increase the dose until reaching 7 capsules or when you feel warmth in your stomach whichever occurs first. A feeling of warmth in the stomach means that you have taken too many capsules for that meal, and you need to take one less tablet for that meal size. It is a good idea to try the larger dose again at another meal to make sure that it was the HCl that caused the warmth and not something else.
  • What you are trying to find out is the largest dose that you can take without feeling any warmth. Once you find that out, maintain that dose at all of meals of similar size. You will need to take less at smaller meals.
  • When taking a number of capsules, spread them out through the meal for best results.
  • As your stomach begins to regain the ability to produce the amount of HCl needed to properly digest your food, you will notice the warm feeling again and will have to cut down the number of capsules.
Digestive Enzymes to the Rescue
While probiotics are marketed as a cure-all for digestive complaints, the relief that people are seeking to find is best obtained through supplementation with digestive enzymes.  Unlike probiotics, enzymes can make an immediate difference in digesting a meal. That is because enzymes actually help digest food, probiotics do not. Many people who have occasional digestive difficulties such as indigestion, bloating, or gas will often feel a relief from taking a digestive enzyme supplement in minutes. This fast action is because the enzymes are directly working to breakdown a meal. Many digestive symptoms are simply the result of improper breakdown of food by enzymes.


While our own body produces digestive enzymes, it may not be enough especially in older adults. Aging leads to actual structural changes in the pancreas as well as reduced output of digestive enzymes, often leading to impaired digestion and symptoms ranging from minor gas, pain, nausea, and bloating to severe malabsorption and malnutrition.


Digestive enzymes can be derived from animal, plant, or microbial sources. Of these three sources, enzymes derived from bacteria and fungi are emerging as the most effective source because they are very stable, resist damage caused by the stomach acid, and can function within a wide range of pH levels. For example, while the pancreatic enzyme trypsin and chymotrypsin are only effective in a pH environment of 8-10, some digestive enzyme supplements contain blends of microbial-derived enzymes that can be effective throughout the entire pH range. Since the pH of the human gastrointestinal tract varies from very acid to alkaline, it is important to choose products that utilize technology such as the Thera Blend process from Enzymedica to carefully select variants (isoenzymes) within each digestive enzyme category (e.g., proteases, amylases, and lipases) to allow the mixture of these isoenzymes to be effective throughout the entire gastrointestinal tract.


These more advanced enzyme preparations have ushered in a whole new era for digestive enzymes. For best results, digestive enzymes are recommended to be taken before meals or early in the meal.

Final Comments

Just a reminder, in most cases it is not food that is causing digestive symptoms, it is the improper digestion of that food. So, the first goal in trying to improve gut symptoms is to focus on improving digestion. As far was which to use first, Betaine HCL or digestive enzymes. Here is a good rule of thumb. If the bloating, gas, indigestion occurs within the first 30-45 minutes of eating go with Betaine HCL. If it occurs more than 45 minutes after eating, go with digestive enzymes first. 

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