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ULCER, YOU AND THE REMEDIES
Adélékè Olúṣẹ́gun Ọláolúwa
Ulcers are one of the commonest conditions among humans. Not long ago, the stereotype of a person with ulcers was that of an aggressive, stressed-out businessman who worked long hours, surviving on three-martini lunches and too much spicy food. Many sufferers took a strange pride in that pain in the gut, considering it evidence of their ambition and selflessness. What a letdown: Scientists proved in the 1980s that most ulcers are caused not by too much sweat and toil but by bacteria.
That doesn’t mean stress, spicy foods, and alcohols aren’t important. In fact, these and other lifestyle factors seem to worsen ulcers for some patients. So, what can you do to avoid the burning sensation in your abdomen, nausea, or other symptoms related to ulcers? In this article, we will discuss the causes and symptoms for ulcers. We’ll also review traditional medical treatment as well as steps you can take at home to care for your digestive tract. Let’s get started with a look at the fundamentals of this condition.
An ulcer is an erosion (open sore) on the surface of an organ or tissue. Ulcers most commonly erupt in the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum, in which case they are known as peptic ulcers.
The problem begins, in most cases with bacteria that seems to live for one purpose, digging holes in our stomachs. This bacterium, known as Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori for short), is very common. It is found in about half of all people under 60 years old. H. pylori never causes problems in most people, but in an unlucky minority, the bug burrows through the stomach’s protective mucous coating. The bacteria and stomach acid irritate the sensitive lining beneath, causing ulcers to form. In some cases, H. pylori isn’t the villain, however, people who use nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and aspirin for pain relief over long periods can develop ulcers.
Heredity also plays an important role in contributing to ulcers. People who have a family history of ulcers seem to have a greater likelihood of acquiring the condition, as do people with type O blood group. In addition, liver disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and emphysema are among the conditions that may increase vulnerability to ulcers. Stomach and pancreatic cancers also can cause these sores to form.
Ulcers can produce mild symptoms resembling heartburn or severe pain radiating throughout the upper portion of the body. The most common discomfort of ulcers is a burning sensation in the abdomen above the navel that may feel like hunger pangs. Pain comes about 30 to 120 minutes after eating or in the middle of the night when the stomach is empty. At this time, the acidic stomach juices are more apt to irritate the unprotected nerve endings in the exposed ulcer. Usually, pain subsides after eating or drinking something or taking an antacid to neutralize stomach acid.
Some people experience nausea, vomiting, and constipation. Blood in the feces (discoloring them black), blood in the vomit, extreme weakness, fainting, and excessive thirst are all signs of internal bleeding and may appear in more advanced cases. Although ulcers are not usually life-threatening, they can cause serious damage if left untreated. Ulcers may erode nearby blood vessels and cause internal seepage of blood or hemorrhage (massive internal bleeding). A perforated ulcer may penetrate an adjoining organ, causing infection.
Most ulcers caused by H. pylori can be cured with a combination of antibiotics and acid-blocking drugs or bismuth subsalicylate (better known as Pepto Bismol). Unfortunately, even though this information has been widely disseminated in medical journals, some doctors still send ulcer patients home with little more than orders to take it easy, knock off the booze, and eat a bland diet. If you have ulcer-like symptoms, meet your physician who will direct you to the Medical Laboratory Scientists to perform tests that can determine whether you have the H. pylori bug, so that if prescription medications are appropriate for your condition, you get them.
Treatment of ulcers involves relieving the irritation so that healing is able to progress naturally. Antacids counteract stomach acid and relieve symptoms, but they can also cause complications. For example, sodium bicarbonate, a primary antacid ingredient, contains large amounts of sodium, which can aggravate kidney disease or high blood pressure.
For treatment of more problematic ulcers, a physician may prescribe other preparations to promote healing. Sucralfate coats the stomach, protecting it against gastric acid. Cimetidine, ranitidine, and other H2 blockers inhibit gastric acid production. Antibiotics and antacids are often prescribed to treat ulcers caused by infection with H. pylori. Although recent studies have shown that a bland diet is not necessary for ulcer management, such a diet is sometimes recommended until the acute symptoms disappear. Thereafter, many doctors suggest avoiding only those foods known to cause stomach distress. Most ulcers heal within two to six weeks after treatment begins. To prevent recurrence, patients should continue to avoid cigarettes, alcohol, and any foods or substances that appear to cause irritation of the digestive tract lining.
When drug therapy and diet cannot cure an ulcer, surgical repair may be necessary. Surgery is appropriate for ulcers that recur or are life-threatening, such as perforated ulcers. Sometimes, surgeons remove a portion of the stomach and parts of the vagus nerve (which controls digestive secretions) to reduce stomach acid production. Usually, ulcers do not reappear after surgery. Once they leave the doctor’s office, ulcer patients can help their condition by watching their diet.
Home Remedy Treatments for Ulcers
If you’ve just been diagnosed with ulcers or have been living with them for years, you can usually find some simple home-remedy relief if you avoid foods that can irritate your condition. Watching your diet will require discipline. Here are some recommendations to help you take care of your digestive tract:
Go by gut reactions. Highly spiced and fried foods, long thought to be prime culprits in instigating ulcers, are now considered to have little bearing on either the development or course of an ulcer. However, they do bother some people who already have ulcers. If you find that spicy meals, for example, are always followed by a severe gnawing pain, assume that there may be a cause and effect. The same goes for any other food that seems to cause you discomfort.
Test your limits. An elimination diet can help you determine if any specific food triggers an increase in ulcer symptoms. An elimination diet involves avoiding frequently eaten and common food allergens for two or three weeks, then reintroducing them one by one, and taking note of which ones trigger symptoms.
Eat wisely. The real key to keeping gastric juices from attacking the lining of the digestive tract is to keep some food present as much of the time as possible. Try eating smaller meals more frequently. Don’t overeat, though — too much food causes formation of more gastric juices as well as weight gain. Simply spread your normal amount of calories over more and smaller meals. Snack on healthy treats, such as carrot sticks and whole-wheat crackers.
Up your fiber. People with ulcers should eat as many unrefined and high-fiber plant foods as possible. A diet rich in highly processed grains (such as white flour) deprives the body of fiber and protein, which can shield the digestive lining from stomach acid. Some high-fiber foods include spinach, cabbage, broccoli, and brussel sprouts.
Skip the milk solution. One of the earliest treatments for ulcer flare-ups was milk, which was believed to neutralize stomach acid. However, scientists now know that foods high in calcium increase stomach acid. So while the protein part of the milk may soothe, the calcium may make matters worse.
Drink lightly. The question of alcohol’s impact on ulcer formation remains unanswered. Many medical experts believe that people who drink heavily are at higher risk of developing ulcers than those who drink lightly or not at all.
Give up the smoke screen. Although the results of research into the link between cigarette smoking and ulcers have been mixed, most medical authorities generally agree that there is a relationship between the two. Some believe smokers have double risk of developing ulcers. Smoking increases stomach-acid secretion and inhibits the secretion of prostaglandins and sodium bicarbonate, substances naturally produced by the body that normally help protect the stomach lining (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs also interfere with the secretion of prostaglandins). Smoking also decreases blood circulation to the stomach lining (as well as to other parts of the body), which may negatively affect the lining’s ability to heal — and smokers’ relapse rate is higher than normal.
Work on ways to effectively control (and eliminate) stress. Take a stress-management course, learn to meditate, do yoga, or exercise regularly! Do whatever it takes to let go of stress.
Self-medicate with care. Ulcer sufferers are never far away from their antacids. But if you use these medications, do so with care. Without a doctor’s supervision, you may under- or over-medicate. Not to mention overspending — you may end up paying as much as you would for prescription drugs.