Natural Remedies for Ulcers

Ulcer research is making holistic practitioners and doctors alike rethink causes, prevention and treatment of this painful condition.

| May/June 2001

You know the drill—the slow burn just hours after eating. Pain so intense it can wake you out of a dead sleep. Or perhaps you don’t feel the fire. Instead you may suffer from a dull, gnawing pain between the abdomen and breastbone. Although comedians have joked about ulcers for years, these jokes aren’t funny if you’re the one afflicted.

Twenty million Americans will develop at least one ulcer sometime in their lives. That’s one in ten. Of those, more than 40,000 will resort to surgery for relief from persistent ulcers each year. Before you reach for the antacids, let’s look at what’s really going on down there.

Where ulcers begin

A peptic ulcer is a sore that forms in either the lining of the stomach or in the beginning of the small intestine, called the duodenum. Although stomach pain is the most familiar symptom of an ulcer, less common but more serious signs include loss of appetite and weight, bloody or tarry black stools, and/or vomiting of blood or a substance that looks like coffee grounds. (If you experience the sudden onset of these symptoms, make a trip to the emergency room, because they may indicate internal bleeding.)

Normally, the stomach produces hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes such as pepsin, all of which break down and digest food. Because these gastric juices are extremely potent, the body defends itself by coating the stomach and intestines with a protective layer of mucus. Prostaglandins, hormone-like substances, form another line of defense against these acids. They keep the blood vessels in the stomach dilated—a good thing because secretions of mucus depend on blood flow to the mucosal tissue.

Ulcers develop when an imbalance occurs between the digestive juices and the body’s defense mechanisms, allowing the acid and enzymes to attack the stomach lining itself. In severe cases, the lining is eroded to the point of becoming perforated—a hole is formed in the stomach wall, enabling partially digested food, stomach acid, and bacteria to spill into the sterile abdominal cavity. That can lead to hemorrhaging from the erosion of a major blood vessel, or to obstruction of the gastrointestinal tract. Ulcers that form where the stomach and the small intestine meet can swell and scar, forming an obstruction which blocks the intestinal opening. Such an obstruction causes vomiting of the stomach contents and is an extremely serious situation which requires emergency surgery. So ulcers aren’t a condition to be taken lightly.

What causes the imbalance that begins this whole process? One of the most common causes of ulcers is a bacterium known as Helicobacter pylori. Because of its corkscrew shape, H. pylori can penetrate the stomach’s protective mucus coating and attach itself to the stomach lining. Most bacteria cannot survive the stomach’s harsh environment. But H. pylori thrives by producing the enzyme urease; urease generates ammonia, which neutralizes acid. H. pylori also produces a number of toxins that promote inflammation and damage to the stomach lining. Yet not everyone infected with the bacteria gets ulcers. Even though more than half of all adults carry H. pylori by the time they are sixty, only one in six infected with the bacterium develops an ulcer.



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