Joan was a go-getter, but not in the classic sense. She didn’t wear a business suit from Neiman Marcus or do power lunches, or even skip lunch altogether. Joan demonstrated that while trends and risk factors do make it more likely for a particular person to develop a disease, it is possible for practically anyone to have just about any disease. Joan was a yoga teacher with a gastric (or stomach) ulcer.
What causes ulcers?
Joan had just been to her doctor, who’d told her that ulcers were mostly caused by bacteria or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin, and that stress and diet, though somewhat important for overall health, played an incidental role. Her doctor had ordered some antibody tests, which came back strongly positive for a common bacteria, Helicobacter pylori (abbreviated H. pylori), which medical science has concluded is the most likely cause of gastric and duodenal ulcers.
As I examined Joan, I noticed that she had a fast, thin pulse. Her tongue was also quite red, especially about a third of the way back in the center (the area associated with the stomach). The redness suggested “heat” in the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) system, as did her fast pulse. The relative weakness of her pulse and the thin coating on her tongue told me that she was deficient and that her body’s weakened immune system and vital energy could use some extra care and support.
We also needed to clear some of the “heat” stuck in her stomach area. I explained to Joan that this meant eating an immune-strengthening diet and choosing foods and herbs that could cool and soothe her stomach.
It often takes two months to heal an ulcer.
Although Joan’s doctor prescribed a “triple therapy” of three antibiotics to kill the bacteria in her stomach, herbalists like myself are always looking at the underlying factors that got Joan to the point of weakness in the first place. Instead of asking, “How can I kill the bacteria and get rid of the disease?” we ask, “Why is the bacteria overgrowing in the stomach?” This approach made sense to Joan—that’s why she chose to come to an herbalist—but she was confused. She asked, “Well, does the bacteria cause the ulcer or not?”
I told her to think of any disease process as a series of events. While the bacteria does enable inflammation to form in the body and allow the stomach’s digestive juices to erode the stomach lining, a number of important factors can lead up to bacterial overgrowth. “Like what?” Joan asked. I explained to her that according to natural medicine, any nutritional, emotional, mental, or environmental factor can alter one’s immune system response and tighten the stomach area, inhibiting the flow of nutrients and removal of wastes.
Gastric ulcer healing program
Because her stomach pain was severe, I recommended bedrest for three to five days, with a bland diet consisting of white rice gruel, barley broth, and oatmeal—fairly boring, but very soothing and healing for ulcers, in my experience. If everything goes right, it often takes about two months to completely heal an ulcer.
I advised Joan to slowly transition to a diet with at least five servings of fresh fruits and vegetables daily, plus cooked grains, beans, raw nuts and seeds, and a little fish. I strongly suggested that she avoid wheat products, alcohol, caffeine-containing beverages, and foods with black pepper, garlic, and onions for at least two months. Joan was concerned about whether she’d be able to make these dietary changes, but I told her to do the best she could for two months and then we’d reassess everything.
Herbs and supplements
I also recommended that she take some supplements and herbs. I suggested 1 to 2 g of vitamin C and 400 IU of vitamin E twice daily with meals. Additionally, I recommended borage seed or evening primrose oil, 500 mg three times daily, along with 1 teaspoon of freshly ground flaxseed (Linum usitatissimum) daily. For herbs, I suggested 1 strong cup of chamomile (Matricaria recutita) tea made by simmering 4 tablespoons of dried chamomile in 4 cups of water for 1 minute in a covered pan, then steeping for 30 minutes (this recipe makes a day’s worth of tea). She drank this tea three times daily, between meals on an empty stomach. Chamomile has proven anti-inflammatory, ulcer-healing, and cramp-reducing qualities. I also suggested two capsules twice daily with meals of a special licorice extract called DGL, available in most health-food stores.
The above nutritional and herbal program is beneficial for almost everyone with a gastric ulcer, but make sure to get a proper diagnosis from a physician before consulting an experienced health-care practitioner or herbalist.
For Joan, I added an immune and vital energy-strengthening herbal formula consisting of American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and ligustrum (Ligustrum spp.) Because she wanted to try and avoid strong antibiotics, I added some antibacterial herbs that could reduce H. pylori numbers—andrographis (Andrographis paniculata), coptis (Coptis chinensis), and calendula (Calendula officinalis). Not everyone will benefit from these herbs; it depends on your present condition, so make sure to consult a TCM practitioner, qualified herbalist, or naturopathic physician for a proper diagnosis.
I saw Joan regularly for several months, also performing acupuncture to reduce the heat in her “stomach channel” and to tonify her kidney system and counteract yin deficiency. Although her acute pain subsided in less than a week, it was in about eight weeks that a follow-up test showed she was free of H. pylori and the ulcer was healed.
Christopher Hobbs’s case studies are gleaned from his thirty years of studying and practicing herbalism. Hobbs, a fourth-generation botanist and herbalist, is an Herbs for Health editorial adviser and licensed acupuncturist. He is the coauthor of Vitamins for Dummies (IDG, 1999) and many other books.
“Case Studies: Choose Soothing Herbs For Stomach Ulcers” is not intended to replace the advice of your health-care provider.
By Christopher Hobbs