What is the 'SAFE' method for fixing your stomach function?
If there’s one word that encapsulates my approach to naturally fixing stomach dysfunction, it’s this:
This is because there are so many irresponsible approaches being pitched today by pop-up gut gurus, which can – in reality - be quite dangerous and lead to more confusion.
Often, those trying to address this issue can be met with surprising obstacles that work to complicate and deter progress.
Many clients have relayed their fear of working with acid, of experiencing burning symptoms, and frustrations about not knowing how to proceed in a rational way.
Because of this, I’ve found that there is great need to articulate and systematize the various considerations I suggest keeping in mind while undertaking this task.
Because even though navigating these waters can be complex, the step of normalizing your stomach function remains perhaps the single most foundational piece to good gut health and immune health.
Hence, the ‘SAFE’ method to fixing your stomach function was born.
“What is the ‘SAFE’ method for fixing stomach function?”
‘SAFE’ is an acronym for our unique 4-step approach that I suggest you follow – in order – to safely and efficiently fix your stomach function. It entails the following:
STEP 1: Soothe your tissue.
STEP 2: Acidify your pH.
STEP 3: Fortify your other upper GI secretions.
STEP 4: Elevate populations of beneficial microbes.
Let's examine this a bit more closely - shall we?
Soothe your tissue
The first step is to ‘soothe your tissue’ – but not just any tissue. We’re talking specifically here about your digestive mucosa.
Your digestive mucosa is your gut lining, and it secretes protective mucus that serves as an important barrier between the potentially irritating contents in your GI-tract (food, microbes, toxins, etc.) and your tissue.
For many reasons that occur in modern life, your digestive mucosa can become impaired and degraded, leading to less mucus secretion and a vulnerable and damaged gut lining that inevitably leads to down-stream inflammation. Some of these impairment factors include:
- Consistent exposure to certain drugs and pharmaceuticals
- Pesticide intake
- Excessive sugar and carbohydrates in the diet
- Underlying infection
- And the delayed emptying time caused by low stomach acid
In order to ensure that whatever you consume and allow into your GI tract will not further irritate your already angry mucosa, then slip past its broken structure and into your tissue where it will cause an immune response, you’ve got to first focus on repairing and strengthening.
When this step gets skipped, there’s an exponentially greater likelihood that you will remain sensitive and irritated by whatever other therapy you decide to try – because everything will be irritating to tissue that is already irritated.
It’s sort of like your gut is a kitchen that’s a bit of a fixer upper. There’s a way to prioritize how you choose to complete that work. If there’s a small fire in the pantry, for example, you won’t ignore the fire while you replace the countertops. It doesn’t matter whether you use the nicest countertops money can buy or if you are super disciplined with your work on the countertops, they will still get ruined eventually by the fire. Instead, it, of course, makes sense to tackle the fire first, then do those countertops.
This is our logic with the stomach as well: we want to tend to the emergency structural threat, and do the prep-work necessary to get the tissue into the shape it will need to be in so that we can actually fix function without making anything worse, and without wasting your time and effort.
It doesn’t matter how disciplined you are or how much money you spend on gut therapies – without this step you likely won’t get very far.
The way that I suggest going about this process involves:
- making sure to avoid gut irritants
- intensively emphasizing targeted foods that nourish the mucosa
- and by supporting your endogenous mucus production with specific herbs and phytonutrients.
If you’d like help with this work, please check out our easy 1 week mini-course – The 7 Day Gut Soothe© - where I teach our proprietary process in-depth. Learn more about that here.
Acidify your pH
Once you’ve completed the mucosal healing step, it’s time to actually begin to get at the heart of the issue by tackling the level of acidity in your stomach.
And, fun fact: once you complete the ‘soothe your tissue’ step, unless you move swiftly into this next phase of re-acidifying your stomach’s pH, you likely won’t be able to maintain your mucosal integrity.
This is because low stomach acid is actually a primary cause of a degraded mucosa - it delays the emptying time of the stomach, leading to prolonged acidic exposure and mucosal erosion (which you can learn more about here).
The reality is that for most of us sensitive folk, we need to trade these simplistic approaches for a more predictable and controllable tool: Betaine HCl. We also need to reconcile ourselves to moving low and slow.
To really exact the most amount of control possible while moving through this process, I suggest further breaking it down into 3 components:
- Mucosal healing + Betaine HCl introduction
Here you’ll continue on with your mucosal supports while introducing Betaine HCl in a controlled way to make sure you can tolerate it without adverse side effects.
- Betaine HCl + Mucosal support weaning
Now that you’ve confirmed you can tolerate it, slowly wean off of the mucosal supports.
- Betaine HCl only
Then proceed with finding your Betaine HCl dose.
Here’s the thing, though. Once you’ve found you’re Betaine HCl dose… you’re not done! You’re only about halfway through the process of righting your stomach-function-ship.
Fortify your other upper GI secretions.
Did you know you have literally dozens of digestive secretions beyond just stomach acid?
Now, to be fair, most of them you’re allowed to forget about, especially once you’ve optimized your stomach’s pH – they just kind of follow suit when the pH is in line.
But for many of us who may have had low stomach acid for quite some time that has resulted in some residual digestive disarray, or for those who experience active digestive distress, or who have relevant organ-related conditions, we need to turn next to our other major secretions.
There are two additional players we need to think about:
- Pancreatic enzymes (pancreas)
- Digestive bile (liver/gallbladder)
I’ll typically use a questionnaire to determine whether or not these supports may be indicated based on symptom presentation, lab markers, and health history. But basically, if you’re having trouble digesting fat you need to think about your bile. And if you’re still pretty sensitive to food or are finding you aren’t breaking food down completely then you need to consider enzymes.
In the event that either need to be addressed, there are clear diet, supplement, and lifestyle supports we can implement – temporarily or on a more continuous basis depending on need – to create the digestive synergy between stomach acid and these other upper GI actors that results in optimal function.
Elevate populations of beneficial microbes.
Most people have no idea that pounding some probiotics can have an incredible impact on their upper GI health – after all, our gut bugs are pretty famous for hanging out down south in the intestines – so what do probiotics have to do with the tummy?
To explain I’ll have to mention the infamous tummy villain: H. Pylori.
H. Pylori is one of the few microbial residents that we know to inhabit our stomachs – not usually the intestines. And, while there’s some debate about whether or not its presence can be normal or pathogenic, most practitioners and conventional doctors will opt to eradicate the species if it’s found in conjunction with upper gastric symptoms.
H. Pylori has been shown to cause damage to our acid-producing cells in the stomach in order to make the environment less acidic and more hospitable for itself – not good for our digestive secretions or mucosa.
So we really want to avoid coming down with this guy, and while the best protection against colonization is a strong stomach pH, there’s increasing evidence that taking probiotics can protect you against H Pylori infection.
There’s even evidence that in some cases, taking probiotics can eradicate H Pylori infection all together – without the invasive antimicrobial treatment typically associated with these kinds of infections. And at the very least, probiotics have been shown to increase the effectiveness of these protocols (which can often fail).
For this reason, I suggest everyone implement probiotics after they’ve tended to their upper GI secretions to protect themselves from H. Pylori infection in the future, especially if they have a history of low stomach acid, suffer from an underlying condition, or are over the age of 50.
Also – if you’re someone who goes through the previous ‘SAF’ steps and you find that you can’t tolerate Betaine HCl no matter how much mucosal healing is done, you may have an underlying H. Pylori infection.
And you may be able to get that infection more in control using intensive probiotics as STEP 1, instead, in conjunction with the soothe step.
So for these populations who can’t tolerate Betaine on the first go round, their acronym may need to be ‘SEAF’ rather than ‘SAFE’: Soothe and Elevate first, then acidify, then fortify. Doing the probiotic work first may be a game-changer in terms of their tolerance to Betaine HCl.
This ‘SEAF’ approach can also be indicated for those with histamine or Mast Cell Activation issues.
How to implement the SAFE (or SEAF) method
As I mentioned previously, there are many variables we need to consider when we’re thinking about upper GI health and how to optimize it. This was the impetus for my creation of the ‘SAFE’ method which I use with clients, and teach inside our online program Start With Your Stomach (learn about that here). My intention was to provide an easy and intuitive framework for how to prioritize and move through this process.
Confused about whether or not you need to think about fixing your stomach? Consider taking our free quiz on whether or not you have low stomach acid.
If you're sure this is relevant for you, then I invite you to think about test-driving the first component of this framework ‘Soothe your tissue’ with the 7 Day Gut Soothe Mini-Course©.