what the heck is h. pylori?
Helicobacter pylori, aka h. pylori, is a type of bacteria which resides in our stomach. To be specific, it is found in the mucus lining of the stomach and duodenum, but can also adhere to the cells lining the stomach. It has a rod-like, helix shape (see photo below) which allows it to burrow deep into the lining. Now, keep in mind that the stomach is a very acidic environment. To survive in the acidity, h. pylori bacteria release an enzyme called urease. This enzyme turns urea into ammonia. Yes, I know it sounds weird, but there is actually urea (like found in urine) in gastric juices.
Well, all that ammonia neutralizes the gastric juices around the h. pylori bacteria so they can thrive. Normally, your body would send immune cells to attack and kill bacterial invaders. But immune cells can’t burrow into the lining of the stomach, so h. pylori gets to have a party in your digestive system. There is also evidence showing that h. pylori bacteria can block immune responses so they can’t crash the party.
Depending on which report you go by, 1/3 to 2/3 of the world’s population is infected with h. pylori. Researchers aren’t sure exactly how h. pylori bacteria are transmitted, but they guess is it from fecal to mouth contamination. Considering that sanitation has improved so much in developed countries, they also guess that h. pylori can be transmitted from oral-to-oral contact (such as from contaminated food).
How h. pylori causes ulcers
Researchers have known about h. pylori for over 100 years. It wasn’t until fairly recently that they figured out that h. pylori causes ulcers though. In the 1970s, an Australian pathologist named Robin Warren was looking at samples of inflamed stomach tissue. He found that h. pylori was all over the gastric mucus of the inflamed samples. Interestingly, there wasn’t any inflammation in samples without h. pylori. This led him to believe that h. pylori causes irritation to the stomach.
Warren and his partner Barry Marshall had trouble isolating the bacteria. When they finally did, Marshall actually swallowed a sample of the bacteria to prove it caused ulcers. Talk about taking one for the team! He didn’t develop an ulcer, but he did get a serious case of gastritis (inflamed stomach). This proved that h. pylori bacteria did cause stomach irritation. Luckily for Marshall, the infection cleared up without any treatment (guess I’m not the only one who’s kicked h. pylori without drugs!).
Researchers still aren’t exactly sure how h. pylori causes ulcers. The most common theory is that h. pylori damages the mucus lining of the stomach and duodenum. Without this protective mucus layer, the acid from the stomach can damage its own cells. The fact that h. pylori causes inflammation is also likely to be a factor.
Today, researchers know that h. pylori causes about 80% of ulcers in the stomach and 90% of ulcers in the duodenum. What they don’t know is why some people with h. pylori get ulcers and others don’t. Keep in mind that h. pylori is a bacteria which affects upwards of 2/3 of the world!
From my own experiences and research, I’d have to surmise it all comes down to gut health. Even if you do have bad h. pylori bacteria in your stomach wearing away at the mucus, a healthy gut could still repair the mucus before any real damage is done. But, if your gut isn’t healthy, then the bacteria are going to do a number on your mucus and gastric acid will be able to damage cells. Remember when doctors used to think that ulcers came from stress and bad diet? Well, those factors are definitely not good for your gut! So, if you’ve got h. pylori and you are also eating a bad diet and are dealing with stress constantly, then the h. pylori are gonna take a toll.
H. pylori and stomach cancer
As if an ulcer wasn’t bad enough, h. pylori is also linked to numerous types of gastric cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute SEER Program, nearly 11 thousand people will have died of gastric cancer in 2013. And the rates are on the rise.
H. pylori has been identified as the main cause of gastric cancer (even before causes like smoking). Again, researchers can’t be positive how h. pylori causes gastric cancer, but the theory is that the inflammation caused by the bacteria predisposes the tissues to becoming cancerous. Since damaged cells have to replicate more frequently, they also are more likely to get cancerous mutations. According to a study in Clinical Microbiology, people with h. pylori have a 1-2% chance of getting stomach cancer.
What are the symptoms of h. pylori?
Most people (85%) with h. pylori won’t have any symptoms at all. About 10-20% of people will get a peptic ulcer. 1-2% will get stomach cancer. The rest will have symptoms like stomachache, belching, indigestion, bloating, and other symptoms of stomach inflammation. Super sexy, huh?
What do mainstream docs use to treat h. pylori?
Since h. pylori is a bacteria, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the mainstream treatment for h. pylori is antibiotics. Hardcore antibiotics. Along with two antibiotics (usually clarithromycin and amoxicillin), doctors will also give a proton-pump inhibitor. Proton-pump inhibitors are drugs which reduce gastric acid formation (over-the-counter stuff like Prilosec). The idea is that the ulcer will be able to heal if there isn’t so much stomach acid eating away at it.
Back when this “triple therapy” of drugs was prescribed, it was actually pretty effective. Now, the 3-way of drugs fails for about 35% of patients – and the effectiveness is still falling. The reason is because bacteria has become resistant to antibiotics. Not shocking considering the majority of docs are quite trigger happy when it comes to prescribing antibiotics. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and a place for modern medicine and antibiotics but prescribing them each time you have a sniffle is probably going to do more harm than good. To be fair, we’d have to point a finger at CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) for pumping our meat full of antibiotics as well. Not helpful guys. Not helpful at all.
Aside from the whole antibiotic resistance issue, this approach doesn’t seem so wise. For starters, proton-pump inhibitors block stomach acid formation. Remember how we said that h. pylori secretes enzymes to reduce stomach acid, and that is what allows them to thrive? So, if you are reducing stomach acid, then you are just going to make an even more hospitable environment for h. pylori. Oh, and those antacids aren’t doing you any favors! If you have acid reflux, GERD or hearburn, The 30 Day Heartburn Solution will show you how to treat it naturally.
But the antibiotics should take care of the h. pylori before they go haywire in the now low-acid environment of your stomach, right? Well, antibiotics are also going to kill off the good bacteria in your stomach. If you do go the antibiotic route for this or anything else make sure to include a dose of therapeutic grade probiotics like Prescript Assist alongside it. You’ll also want to add naturally-fermented foods to your diet, like these easy to make pickled carrots. Good bacteria found in probiotics are essential for reducing inflammation and maintaining the health of your stomach lining. Numerous studies now even show that taking antibiotics can increase incidence of gut-related diseases. There are now also many studies which show that ingesting probiotic good bacteria can eradicate h. pylori. So, do you really want to be taking antibiotics which will kill off the good bacteria you need to keep your digestive system healthy?