We are all familiar with the slowing of our bodily processes as we age. As early as our 50s and 60s, we may find our reflexes slow down, we get winded faster, and printed words get smaller and blurrier.

There is another system that is affected by the aging process — our digestion. This is unfortunately a “double whammy” because our bodies tend to lose the ability to digest and absorb the important nutrients that keep us healthy and, paradoxically, slow the aging process.

One of the most important parts of our digestion is the acid made by the stomach. It has many purposes, including breaking down proteins, destroying poisons, killing bacteria and parasites and helping absorb minerals such as calcium. When acid production slows down, the whole digestive process is impaired. There is some evidence that acid production decreases as we age, and we know for sure it is reduced by a poor diet, chronic stress, disease and some medications.

When digestive acid production is not up to par, it can affect the whole system. If the stomach is not doing its job, it passes undigested food on to the intestine, where it can cause bloating, gas, constipation, loose stools and other problems.

But the biggest problem caused by low stomach acid occurs in the stomach itself. The lack of acid prevents the food from digesting properly, causing it to be retained in the stomach longer. This is irritating to the lining of the stomach, leading to heartburn, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.

Of course, millions of Americans intentionally reduce their acid production through the use of drugs — the “purple pills” you see advertised. And while this approach does ease the pain of GERD and heartburn, it actually worsens the underlying problem. This is why many patients need higher doses of these meds over time. I have seen some patients who are on two different acid blocker meds and still need to use an antacid with meals. The problem is not that their stomach is making too much acid but that the linings of their stomachs are so inflamed they cannot handle what little acid they do make when they eat.

There are other ways of addressing this problem without resorting to drugs. For many patients, the stomach inflammation has to be reduced first. This can be done with treatments such as acupuncture, supplements and dietary changes. This not only eases the pain of heartburn, it actually helps the stomach to heal. It also can improve the function of the valve at the top of the stomach, which can eliminate GERD.

Once the inflammation is down, we slowly introduce a supplement that supplies hydrochloric acid, along with some digestive enzymes. This “replacement therapy” helps restore stomach acid levels so the food is better digested. Patients notice not only that their heartburn and reflux improves, but also that often lower digestive symptoms such as loose stools, bloating and constipation resolve as well. And when their digestion returns to normal, and they are able to absorb their food better.

Unfortunately, if a patient has been on an acid blocker drug for many years, they may not be able to completely stop using it. The body adapts to the effects of the drug, and when it is stopped there is occasionally a rebound effect. But most patients are able to greatly reduce or eliminate their acid medication use when these natural treatments are used.