Peptic ulcers are not only the domain of power-breakfasting type-A personalities. Even school children are capable of growing their own. A peptic ulcer occurs when the protective lining of the stomach is damaged. If this happens within the stomach itself, it’s called a gastric ulcer. If this happens just outside the stomach in the first part of the small intestine, it’s called a duodenal ulcer. They have similar symptoms and are treated in the same way. Once the thick lining of mucus coating the stomach is disturbed, hydrochloric acid and pepsin (a protein-digesting enzyme) eat away at the tissue beneath, causing an ulcer. Some people think a peptic ulcer is caused by an excess of stomach acid. This is not the case. Stomach acid needs to be ruggedly acidic in order to do its best work. Rather, it is when the lining has been damaged and acid is able to reach unprotected tissue that problems arise. Gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach lining, is but a skip and a jump along the path to an ulcer.
- Pain in the upper abdomen and chest, variously described as burning or gnawing.
- Pain occurs when the stomach is empty or within 1–3 hours after eating.
- Upper abdominal pain that wakes you up at night.
- Loss of appetite.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Black, tarry stool. This is a sign the ulcer may have perforated. See your doctor immediately.
What causes it?
- The bacteria, helicobacter pylorus (known as H. pylorus to its friends and researchers, and H. pylorii when there is a gathering of H. pyloruses) is implicated in 95 per cent of all peptic ulcers. Since triple therapy (2 antibiotics with an acid-inhibiting drug) has been introduced, the recurrence of stomach ulcers has reduced by 90 per cent.
- Excess alcohol can cause peptic ulcers. Alcohol irritates the lining of the stomach. In addition, a certain percentage of alcohol is absorbed directly from the stomach, which explains why you can feel tipsy within minutes after your first sip of champers. Most foods are absorbed after leaving the stomach, in the small intestine. Presumably, some acid is drawn along with the alcohol, creating or exacerbating damage to the stomach lining. Drinking on an empty stomach is particularly harmful.
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), including aspirin, are another common cause and trigger in peptic ulcers. They irritate the lining of the stomach and inhibit the repair of tissue.
- Although most cigarette smoke goes to the lungs, some ends up in the stomach, where it is an irritant. Cigarette smoke also decreases bicarbonate production from the pancreas into the small intestine. Bicarbonate is important for buffering or reducing the acidic contents after their release from the stomach. As you can imagine, if the acid contents are not quickly alkalised, they are likely to damage any area not protected. Passive smokers may also be at risk.
- Formerly thought to be the major cause of peptic ulcers, stress is still considered an exacerbating factor.
What to do
While the dietary suggestions and remedies mentioned below are very effective, sometimes it will be necessary to complete a course of triple therapy as peptic ulcers are not to be trifled with – they can perforate and cause internal bleeding.
- Avoid alcohol and any foods that aggravate your ulcer. Common aggravators include curry, pepper, chillies, coffee (even decaf), black tea, orange juice and tomatoes. You know your own ulcer – if a food not on this list causes you curry, even if it’s not curry, avoid it until your ulcer has healed.
- For breakfast (or any time), you might like to try this therapeutic ‘soothie’: blend milk (cow, goat, soy, rice or almond), yoghurt (sheep, goat or cow), a teaspoon of probiotic powder or the contents of 3 capsules, a teaspoon or 2 of slippery elm, a small banana, manuka honey and cinnamon to taste.
- Avoid sugar. Bacteria thrive on it, including H. pylorus.
- The ’umble cabbage contains S-methyl methionine that stimulates the healing of cells and speeds up the production of the protective mucus lining. The best way to enjoy the healing power of cabbage is to juice it. Blend 2 cups of sliced cabbage (green or red), 2 sticks of celery and 2 carrots. Drink this through the day, every day, for 7 days.
- To prevent H. pylorus from gaining a foothold and to restore microbial balance (especially after antibiotic therapy), eat plenty of probiotic foods such as yoghurt made with acidophilus or bifidus, miso, leben and sauerkraut. If you can cultivate a taste for sauerkraut it would be splendid, because it offers both the cabbage and the probiotics.
- Manuka honey contains a substance that inhibits the growth of H. pylorus.
- A little plain acidophilus yoghurt is soothing and not a strain on your digestion.
- Adopting good eating habits is important. Eat your food slowly. Don’t eat lunch at your desk while working. Eat your meals at the same time each day. Don’t miss meals. Don’t chew gum between meals and eat small meals that create less work for the digestive system.
- Avoid red meat as digesting it is asking way too much from a stressed-out stomach.
- Mucopolysaccharides help to heal an ulcer. Try foods such as oysters, tripe, shellfish, oatmeal, aloe vera, slippery elm, pig’s trotters, okra and cactus (peeled).
- If your ulcer is giving you a lot of pain, try pureed soup or baby food until you can take more demanding meals.
- Drink 50 ml (less for children) of aloe vera juice, morning and night. Aloe contains mucopolysaccharides and will soothe and heal an angry ulcer or inflamed stomach wall.
- Slippery elm cannot be surpassed. Its gentle slipperiness is just the thing for healing. Slippery elm doesn’t linger, so take a teaspoon 3 times a day before meals. When things have calmed down, take once daily. (Powder is best here, rather than tablets.)
- Take a good probiotic each morning. This will help reduce the H. pylori population and is absolutely vital to take after any antibiotics to restore harmony to the microbial population of your stomach. The bugs that have thus far been proven to be helpful against Mr. H. pylorus are L. rahamnosus GG, lactobacillus casei and johnsonii La1. No doubt as research continues, more probiotics will be added to this list, but in the meantime, take a supplement containing at least 1 of these guys in addition to including probiotic food in your diet.
- Traditional herbal formulations for peptic ulcers contain antibiotic herbs such as golden seal and calendula, as well as soothing and other healing herbs like licorice, chickweed, chamomile, meadowsweet and marshmallow root.
- Vitamin A and zinc will help heal the damaged mucous membranes.
- The amino acid glutamine increases cell replication and aids healing, particularly of the mucous membrane lining of the digestive tract.
- Stop smoking.
- Stop stress. Or at least find ways to manage your stress levels. Meditation, scrabble, quitting the job you hate, making a tree change.
At a glance
Depending on the severity of your condition, it might be necessary to take a course of triple-therapy medicine. The following suggestions can help relieve symptoms, assist healing and prevent a recurrence.
- Avoid alcohol. It irritates the lining of the stomach.
- Avoid any food that causes you pain.
- Try a soothie (see above).
- Avoid sugar.
- Cabbage contains S-methyl methionine that stimulates healing to the stomach lining.
- Eat probiotic foods to restore microbial harmony in your stomach.
- Aloe vera juice will soothe and heal inflamed and ulcerated tissue.
- Slippery elm is superb for any digestive inflammation.
- To reduce H. pyloruses, hold and restore microbial harmony, take a good probiotic each morning.
- Herbs are excellent for healing inflamed and distressed mucous membranes. Golden seal, calendula, licorice, chickweed, chamomile, meadowsweet and marshmallow.
- The amino acid glutamine increases cell replication and aids healing.
- Stop smoking.
- Deploy all your stress-management tools.