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Is stress stopping your digestion?

When you’re feeling stressed, it’s normal to experience symptoms like insomnia or to find yourself relying on coffee to get through the day. But stress can also affect your digestion, which can have a serious knock-on effect.

When our digestion is out of balance, we may not produce enough stomach acid. This means we might not be able to absorb nutrients properly from our food, leading to a lack of vitamins and minerals.1

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The importance of vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 has a number of important roles, mainly helping our bodies convert food into energy. It can also help produce red blood cells to transport oxygen around the body, and helps keeps the brain and nervous system healthy.

We can’t naturally make B12, so we need to get it from foods such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy, or supplements. You can also find B12 in fortified cereals, soy products and some plant milks.

The trouble with vitamin B12 is that we rely on stomach acid to help us absorb it – and up to a third of us aren’t making enough.

B12 and stomach acid

The B12 we get from food comes attached to protein. Before it can be absorbed and used by the body, this bond must be broken – by stomach acid. It then has to bond to another protein called intrinsic factor, produced by the same cells that produce stomach acid.

However, issues such as bacterial infections, thyroid problems, and ageing can all cause production of stomach acid to nose-dive. In fact, by the time we reach our fifties, 10-30% of will struggle to absorb B12 from food, thanks to low levels of stomach acid.2

Stress is particularly tough on our digestion. The body’s stress response diverts blood away from the digestive system and towards the muscles to prepare us for ‘fight or flight’. This may affect our stomach acid in one of two ways, either by increasing or decreasing production.

In a study of 14 healthy men published in the journal Digestive Diseases and Sciences in 1990, mental stress increased gastric output (stomach acid) in about half the volunteers, but decreased it in the other half.3 So tackling any sources of stress should be your first step to rebalancing your stomach acid levels.

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Increase your B12 intake

The NHS recommends adults get at least 1.5mcg of B12 a day. However, if your stomach acid levels are low, you may need more.

If you are lacking in B12, you may experience:

  • extreme tiredness
  • lack of energy
  • muscle weakness
  • dizziness or loss of balance
  • reduced sensitivity to pain or pressure
  • pins and needles or numbness
  • visual disturbances
  • pale, yellowy skin

Sort low acid levels

You can also take steps to rebalance your stomach acid. Some practitioners suggest drinking diluted lemon juice or apple cider vinegar to increase stomach acidity, or you could try taking a digestive enzyme that contains betaine hydrochloric acid (betaine HCI).

In a pilot study of six volunteers carried out by the University of California in 2013, 1500mg of betaine HCI was found to help lower gastric pH, which, in turn, may increase stomach acid production.4

Talk to your GP if you suffer from digestive discomfort and would like to try complementary remedies.

Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please consult a doctor or healthcare professional before trying any remedies.
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1. UHN staff. Low Stomach Acid: A Surprising Cause of Indigestion Symptoms. Available from:
2. Harvard TH. Chan School of Public Health. The Nutrition Source: Vitamin B12 Deficiency: Causes and symptoms. Available from:
3. Holtmann G, Kriebel R, Singer MV. Mental stress and gastric acid secretion. Available from:
4. Yago MA, et al.. Gastric Re-acidification with Betaine HCl in Healthy Volunteers with Rabeprazole-Induced Hypochlorhydria. Available from:

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