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If you’ve ever experienced symptoms of indigestion or heartburn after eating a protein-rich meal, you may have inadequate stomach acid production.
One way to remedy low stomach acid is with the supplement betaine hydrochloride (betaine HCl), which naturally boosts gastric acidity to fight back against indigestion.
But that’s not all it’s good for—betaine HCl also facilitates nutrient absorption, prevents intestinal bacterial overgrowth, increases potassium levels, and may benefit skin health.
Betaine HCl is a combination of betaine—a compound found in vegetables like spinach and beets—and hydrochloride, an acid salt.
Betaine HCl is most commonly used to increase hydrochloric acid levels in the stomach, which we need to digest protein properly.
HCl is a strong acid, causing our gastric juice to have a pH ranging from 1.5 to 2.5—in someone with normal stomach acid, at least.
People with hypochlorhydria—also known as achlorhydria—have low stomach acid levels, leading to incomplete protein digestion and uncomfortable digestive symptoms like heartburn, bloating, gas, and abdominal pain after eating.
Hypochlorhydria can be caused by several conditions and situations, including:
The most well-known benefit of betaine HCl is its ability to increase stomach acidity.
It may also support other aspects of health, including facilitating nutrient absorption, fighting small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), increasing potassium levels, and supporting skin health.
People who can’t completely break down and absorb protein will have digestive symptoms, with the most common being heartburn, abdominal pain, gas, and bloating.
Betaine HCl increases stomach acid, which triggers the pH-dependent conversion of pepsinogen—an inactive substance—into pepsin, the active form of the enzyme we need to break down protein.
Research has shown that supplementing with betaine HCl at mealtimes is sufficient to improve undesirable digestive symptoms, although the dose will vary from person to person.
One oft-cited study, “Gastric Re-acidification with Betaine HCl in Healthy Volunteers with Rabeprazole-Induced Hypochlorhydria” looked at how this supplement affects gastric pH.
In people with low stomach acid induced by medication, taking 500mg of betaine hydrochloride supplement was sufficient to rapidly lower gastric pH from 5.2 to 0.6 within an average of 6 minutes.
The effects lasted approximately 30 minutes—just enough to get through a meal.
Betaine HCl helps to kill off harmful microbes and potential foodborne bacteria, preventing the pathogens from migrating into the small intestine.
SIBO, or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, is exactly what it sounds like—unwanted bacteria growing in the small intestine.
As opposed to the large intestine, which we want to contain multitudes of microbes, the small intestine should have relatively few bacteria.
People with SIBO have symptoms similar to general indigestion, including nausea, bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and gas.
In addition to it directly killing bacteria before reaching the small intestine, the acid reduces the pH of the intestinal tract to keep other aspects of the gut functioning properly, like the ileocecal valve.
The ileocecal valve is a small muscular flap between the small and large intestines that opens and closes to allow digested food materials to pass along the gastrointestinal tract.
However, when the pH of this area is too high, the ileocecal valve stays open longer than it should, allowing a backward transfer of bacteria from the large intestine into the small intestine, causing SIBO.
Therefore, betaine HCl can create the proper gut pH, allowing for appropriate ileocecal valve function and bacteria staying where it needs to be.
HCl encourages the flow of bile and pancreatic enzymes to facilitate the digestion of other types of food, like fat.
Betaine HCl can also help with micronutrient absorption, including calcium, iron, folate, and vitamins B6 and B12.
This is also due to the increased stomach acidity, which allows us to fully break down the food we eat into smaller nutrients that our cells can use.
Betaine HCl has been used to increase potassium levels in people with hypokalemia—low blood potassium.
Some researchers point to this potassium-raising effect as beneficial to cardiovascular health, as potassium is vital for cardiac muscle contractions.
However, there is a lack of published studies verifying its heart-related benefits.
Low stomach acid is purportedly linked to skin conditions, including acne, rosacea, and dermatitis.
This is because incompletely digested proteins can create inflammation in the body, which can manifest in the skin in some people.
Some research has shown that as many as 40% of people with acne also have hypochlorhydria, suggesting that boosting stomach acid with betaine HCl may be able to help these inflammatory skin conditions.
People who already have normal stomach acidity may experience gastrointestinal symptoms upon taking this supplement, including heartburn, nausea, or diarrhea.
The same digestive effects can occur if someone takes too much of it—once you experience heartburn from betaine HCl supplements, you know you’ve reached your maximum dose.
There are no betaine HCl dangers in healthy people other than potential heartburn-like symptoms.
However, people with peptic ulcer disease, gastritis, or those taking proton pump inhibitors should not take this supplement.
Plus, you should never empty the capsule into a beverage or food because it can irritate your esophagus and cause tooth corrosion.
The correct dosage of betaine HCl will vary individually depending on how much stomach acid you naturally produce.
Most people should start with one betaine HCl capsule, which could range from 350-750mg.
One supplement used to support digestion, Onnit’s Total Gut Health, contains 500mg of betaine HCl.
If you don’t feel any heartburn-like symptoms with one pill and your digestion is still subpar, increase the dose to two capsules the following day, gradually increasing until you hit your maximum dose.
Previously mentioned research successfully utilized doses of 1500mg without adverse effects, but this can vary from person to person.
You’ll want to take betaine HCl right before your meal or about halfway through—and a meal with protein is necessary; otherwise, you will feel heartburn-related symptoms.
People most often use betaine HCl to enhance stomach acidity, especially in people with hypochlorhydria.
It’s important to distinguish between betaine HCl and betaine.
While betaine HCl has a hydrochloride salt attached, betaine on its own is an entirely different substance.
Betaine is interchangeable with TMG (trimethylglycine), a naturally occurring compound in beets that acts as a methyl donor to support athletic performance and heart and liver health.
Betaine HCl typically works within minutes and lasts for approximately 30 minutes—just enough time for you to finish eating and start digesting your meal.
Healthy volunteers in the previously mentioned research saw gastric pH reductions in about 6 minutes after taking 1500mg of betaine HCl.
No, betaine HCl should not make you gain weight.
If anything, betaine HCl may help support a healthier weight because you’ll be better able to absorb nutrients, increasing satiety and reducing overall food intake.
Betaine (AKA TMG) benefits liver health, but we don’t have evidence showing that betaine HCl is good for the liver.
As betaine is a significant part of betaine HCl, it’s possible that betaine HCl could also benefit liver health, but we don’t yet know if this is true.
Betaine HCl helps you to digest fat indirectly by increasing bile production.
Bile is a fluid made and released by the liver and stored in the gallbladder that is necessary to digest fat.
Again, betaine as TMG is linked to lower blood pressure and improved cardiovascular health, but we don’t have any data on betaine HCl lowering blood pressure.
Bowe WP, Logan AC. Acne vulgaris, probiotics, and the gut-brain-skin axis – back to the future?. Gut Pathog. 2011;3(1):1. Published 2011 Jan 31. doi:10.1186/1757-4749-3-1
Fatima R, Aziz M. Achlorhydria. [Updated 2022 May 1]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507793/
Guilliams TG, Drake LE. Meal-Time Supplementation with Betaine HCl for Functional Hypochlorhydria: What is the Evidence?. Integr Med (Encinitas). 2020;19(1):32-36.
Surofchy DD, Frassetto LA, Benet LZ. Food, Acid Supplementation, and Drug Absorption – a Complicated Gastric Mix: a Randomized Control Trial. Pharm Res. 2019;36(11):155. Published 2019 Sep 4. doi:10.1007/s11095-019-2693-5
Yago MR, Frymoyer AR, Smelick GS, et al. Gastric reacidification with betaine HCl in healthy volunteers with rabeprazole-induced hypochlorhydria. Mol Pharm. 2013;10(11):4032-4037. doi:10.1021/mp4003738
Energy drinks and sugary snacks may be louder, sweeter, and faster-acting than natural sources of sugar, but rarely are those benefits conferred without some form of reckoning down the road.
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