Herbs for Ulcers
by Karyn Siegel-Maier
This article originally appeared, in part, in Natural Living Today Magazine
When I was a teenager, I often heard the advice, “Don’t worry so much...you’ll give yourself an ulcer before your thirty!” But, while emotional stress can certainly contribute to the severity of an ulcer, it isn’t the primary cause as was previously thought. And, who could forget Oscar, the emotional beer-slugging, pizza-loving, cigar-smoking, excitable half of the “Odd Couple?” Didn’t his lifestyle make a perpetual ulcer a certainty for him? Check again. It’s a given that these activities can aggravate an ulcer in progress, but they are not necessarily a direct cause. Having dispelled these myths, what does cause an ulcer to take up residence in your stomach?
Doctors used to think that too much stress, or a frequent indulgence in spicy foods lead to peptic ulcers, the general term used to refer to ulcerations of the stomach and small intestine. But, scientists have only recently concluded that the main cause of ulcers is a spiral-shaped bacteria called Heliocobacter pylori (H. pylori). This bacteria produces an enzyme called urease that neutralizes stomach acid and allows it to thrive, even penetrating and damaging the protective barrier of the stomach lining.
Australian researchers first recognized the link between ulcers and the presence of H. pylori in 1982 when it became apparent that at least 80% of their ulcer patients tested positive for the bacteria. More recent studies have revealed that 90 to 100 percent of patients with duodenal (the first section of the small intestine) ulcers and 70% of those with gastric (stomach) ulcers are infected with H. pylori. What researchers aren’t sure of is the scope in which human beings become host to this strain of bacteria.
It does seem clear, however, that H. pylori follows the fecal-oral path, by hands or food coming in contact with H. pylori-infected fecal matter. And, it could be in your drinking water. In a June 1999 report released by Pennsylvania State University, private, untreated water supplies were found to be contaminated with H. pylori in an area where residents had a high incidence of stomach ulcers. Municipal supplies are unlikely to be infected, but if you have well water you may want to have it tested.
Most people who have H. pylori are usually infected in childhood and may never develop an ulcer. But, at least four million each year will as a result of H. pylori invading their stomach. The elderly, who often require nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), are especially at risk. According to a report in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, NSAIDs may increase colonization of the bacteris “with a consequent increase in the risk of developing a peptic ulcer, possibly with complications.”
Anatomy of an Ulcer
The lining of the stomach and small intestine are protected by a self-lubricating mucous layer. Were it not for this layer of mucin, gastric acid (hydrochloric acid) would not only digest your food, but your stomach and intestine as well. But, if this protective lining is compromised, that’s exactly what begins to happen.
An ulcer can be thought of as a lesion or sore that forms along the stomach or intestinal wall where it can corrode muscle and blood vessels and cause bleeding, evidenced blood in the stool. If this process is allowed to continue, bacteria and partially digested material can eventually leak into the abdominal cavity causing inflammation and severe pain. A perforated ulcer of this type usually requires immediate surgery. Ulcers can also occur in the duodenum and can restrict or block the intestinal opening, a condition that also demands immediate attention.
How do you know if you have an ulcer? Surprisingly, ulcers do not always produce symptoms. But, the most common symptom reported is burning pain between the breast bone and navel, usually occurring shortly after a meal or when the stomach is empty. An accurate diagnosis may involve an upper GI series, or x-rays of the esophagus, stomach and duodenum after drinking a barium cocktail. Other measures include blood and stomach tissue tests to determine if H. pylori is present.
The Allergy Factor
Until a few years ago, the alarm to avoid spicy or acidic foods would be raised if an ulcer was suspected. But, the truth is, the old eat-it-bland diet doesn’t do much to improve an ulcer, if anything at all. In fact, there is no particular dietary regimen that will help ulcer sufferers. However, if you experience a consistent flare-up of symptoms after partaking of a certain food, there may be an allergic response at work. Milk, in particular, is one of the most allergenic foods and is undoubtedly associated with the occurrence of ulcers. Ironically, many people reach for a glass of milk thinking it will coat and soothe the stomach lining. But, it may do just the opposite – since milk is not easily digested it promotes an increased production of gastric acid. Gluten is another common trigger. You know your body best -- if you suspect a food allergy is present you should consult your physician, before an ulcer forms to prove it.
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra): The active constituent of licorice is glycyrrhetinic acid. But, since this compound can elevate blood pressure, the form of deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) is most beneficial in the treatment of ulcers. In an early study, 33 subjects with gastric ulcers were given either DGL or a placebo 3 times a day for one month. A reduction in ulcer size was found in 78% of the DGL group compared to 34% of the control group. In addition, complete healing occurred in 44% of the DGL group, but in only 6% of the placebo group.
Unlike the drugs cimetidine (Tagamet) and ranitidine (Zantac), which temporarily suppress the production of stomach acid, DGL improves the integrity of the lining of the stomach and intestinal tract by increasing blood supply and mucosal secretions. While acid suppressors certainly provide quick relief, they fail to address the underlying cause and cost many times more than DGL supplements. Furthermore, DGL has demonstrated an ability to inhibit H. pylori colonization.
Another important consideration in DGL supplementation is that since it improves the protective action of the intestinal lining, it is highly suitable for those who require long-term treatment with drugs known to promote ulcer formation, such as corticosteroids, aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). In fact, researchers are beginning to explore the benefits of coating aspirin with licorice derivatives.
Drink Your Ulcer Away
No, we don’t mean with a round of suds like our friend Oscar, but with vegetable and plant juices. The juice of raw cabbage has been a popular remedy for peptic ulcers for many years. Scientists speculate that the high glutamine content of the juice is likely to be responsible for the speedy healing of ulcers. Its mechanism seems to be to increase secretions of the gastric mucosa. In one early study, subjects with peptic ulcers experienced complete healing within a week to ten days while consuming a total of one liter of the fresh juice daily. Aloe vera juice is also a traditional beverage for ulcers, which promotes healing of mucosal tissue the same way the gel speeds healing of skin damaged from sun burn.
Rhubarb (Rheum spp.) has shown to be an effective in treating intestinal bleeding sometimes caused by ulcers. In a recent Chinese study, 312 patients with bleeding ulcers were treated with alcohol-extracted tablets of rhubarb. The bleeding ceased in more than 90% of the patients in less than three days. This action of rhubarb is thought to be due to the presence of flavonoids and anthraquinones, which act as astringents. Again, aloe vera juice contains similar compounds and may have greater availability.