Is Your Stomach Ache an Ulcer?
Digestive upsets happen to everyone occasionally. But for people with ulcers, it’s all too common to feel a gnawing pain or the sensation that your stomach is on fire. And sometimes there are other discomforts, including belching, feeling bloated, vomiting, nausea, and lack of interest in eating.
For many years, doctors believed that stress caused ulcers and there was no cure. Patients were told to try managing the pain with bland food and antacids, while avoiding stress whenever possible. It wasn’t until 1982 that Australian scientist Robin Warren demonstrated that ulcers were caused by colonies of the bacteria known as Helicobacter pylori, or H. pylori, in the stomach.
As so often happens to medical pioneers, Warren was largely ignored. So he decided to use himself as a lab rat. Warren actually ingested H. pylori, developed an ulcer, and went on to cure it with antibiotics. Eventually, medical professionals got the message. In 2005, he and a teammate were honored with the Nobel Prize in medicine.
Thanks to the efforts of Warren and those who followed, we now know that more than 50 percent of the world’s population is infected with H. pylori. While most of those people are free of symptoms, the bacteria still puts them at risk for ulcers, stomach cancer, and even lymphoma. In the U.S., the infection rate is between 20 and 30 percent, with the elderly, African Americans, and Hispanics suffering the highest rates. Behaviors that are linked to H. pylori include eating meat, consuming restaurant food, drinking unfiltered water, and smoking.
No Wonder Ulcers Hurt
Ulcers are open sores that can occur in various areas of the body. In the stomach, these sores are known as peptic, or gastric, ulcers and are usually in the stomach lining, where stomach acid continues the damage. Approximately 85 percent of all peptic ulcers are caused by H. pylori. The rest are due to drugs, especially non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs) medications, such as aspirin or other pain relievers.
Because so many people use pain relievers on a daily basis, this can be a huge issue. And to make matters even more complicated, the effects of these medications masks the pain of a developing ulcer, so the symptoms might not be recognized until the condition is serious. Other stomach irritants — coffee (both regular and decaf), smoking, and alcohol — may be involved, too. Peptic ulcers tend to affect more women than men and usually develop later in life.
On the other hand, duodenal ulcers occur in the first section of the small intestine, known as the duodenum. These ulcers may create symptoms that are similar to peptic ulcers, although sometimes the pain is felt in the back. Duodenal ulcers may inflame the area where the stomach connects to the small intestine, creating a painful blockage that makes it difficult for food to pass through.
If left untreated, both peptic and duodenal ulcers can actually eat through the stomach wall or duodenum, causing the sudden onset of serious pain requiring immediate medical attention. In other instances, ulcers cause bleeding that may be visible in bowel movements or after vomiting.
While duodenal ulcers are generally benign, peptic ulcers can become malignant. So if you are experiencing symptoms that suggest you may have an ulcer, discuss the situation with your doctor.
Getting a Diagnosis
There are a number of tests your doctor can request to determine if you have an ulcer. These may include:
- X-rays of your intestines, including your esophagus (the tube connecting your mouth and stomach);
- An endoscopy, using a very small camera that can inspect your intestinal tract;
- A test to measure the levels of acid in your stomach;
- Tests for the presence of H. pylori within blood, stool, or tissue samples.
If your physician determines that you do have an ulcer, you will be given antibiotics to rid your stomach and intestines of the H. pylori, as well as acid blocking medication to reduce stomach acid while the ulcer heals.
For my patients, I’ve found that an antibiotic alternative known as mastica, or mastic gum, works extremely well. Mastica, derived from a Greek shrub, has been used since Roman times to treat stomach ailments of all kinds. Research shows that mastica supplements eliminate H. pylori, allowing patients to avoid the downsides of antibiotics, which include killing all stomach bacteria, including those that are absolutely necessary for good health. You can purchase mastica supplements at health food stores; I recommend taking 500 mg twice daily, once in the morning and again in the evening for a minimum of 30 days. By then, the ulcer should be healed, but some patients continue taking mastica just to be sure it’s gone
In addition, be prepared to make some lifestyle changes. Smoking and drinking alcohol are off limits for ulcer patients, as are standard pain-relieving medications. Fortunately, there are far more healthy pain-relieving substitutes. White willow bark supplements are one option I suggest to my patients; white willow bark is the original source of salicylic acid, the primary ingredient originally used in aspirin. But today’s aspirin is made from synthetic ingredients and can cause serious stomach problems if taken on a daily basis, even at low doses. You can find white willow supplements in health food stores. I recommend one to two 400 mg capsules as often as needed.
Healing the Problem
Here are some additional ways to help prevent — and even heal — ulcers.
Curcumin is another excellent all-around supplement I often recommend for pain relief. Curcumin fights pain-causing inflammation and fights cancer. And now we know that curcumin can also help prevent ulcers, as a recent animal study found. The test showed that subjects given curcumin did not develop any ulcers, while those given aspirin or salt water did.
Probiotics, the friendly bacteria found in fermented food products such as yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut, are another good option. One recent study determined that probiotics can protect the stomach lining from ulcers, while a second noted that probiotics were highly effective at healing existing ulcers. Unfortunately, it just isn’t possible to obtain therapeutic doses of probiotics from food alone, so supplements are your best choice. If you are taking antibiotics, the best way to prevent them from killing off the probiotics in your supplements is by taking the antibiotic in the morning and the probiotic in the evening, or vice versa.
Baking soda and apple cider vinegar: Another simple treatment for ulcer pain relies on a combination of 1 teaspoon organic apple cider vinegar and ½ teaspoon of baking soda. The mixture will “fizz” at first, but that’s perfectly normal. When the fizzing stops, add 8 ounces of fresh, filtered water and drink. I recommend this before meals throughout the day.
Aloe vera liquid: Extracts of aloe vera, a type of plant that thrives in low-water regions, have been used for centuries to treat digestive disorders, including soothing and healing ulcers. Today, you can buy processed liquid aloe vera in health food stores. Simply follow the dosage instructions on the product you choose. Aloe vera is also helpful for irritable bowel and ulcerative colitis.
If you’re experiencing digestive difficulties and suspect you may have an ulcer, see your physician to be tested. It’s fairly easy to eliminate H. pylori bacteria with antibiotics. But since the drugs will kill off both good and bad gut bacteria, please replenish the good bacteria with a probiotic supplement. That’s why I treat my patients with mastica gum, mentioned above, and skip the antibiotics.
There is a steady stream of research showing the health benefits of probiotics, and I’m not exaggerating when I say they can be life saving. In fact, I’ll be writing more about beneficial bacteria soon. In the meantime, do yourself a favor and take care of your tummy. Digestive problems make it more difficult to absorb all the beneficial ingredients in food and supplements. So if you’re suffering in silence with a stomach issue, like my patient Jesse, please seek treatment before it turns into something more serious.