Uncovering and understanding ulcers

Uncovering and understanding ulcers

Think of an ulcer like a sore or erosion on the inside of you that isn’t healing.  You can’t see it but it can still make itself known with symptoms such as a burning or gnawing pain.  Ulcers can be found along the digestive tract anywhere from the esophagus, stomach or upper small intestine. They are usually found on the topmost and sometimes underlying layers of cells that form a lining. 

What causes an ulcer?

Before 1982, ulcers were believed to be caused by eating too much spicy food, stress, or having an overly anxious personality.  But then it was determined this was not true.  The primary cause of an ulcer is a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori).  It is a spiral-shaped bacterium that approximately two-thirds of the world’s population is infected with.   It is not known how H. pylori is transmitted but it is most likely spread person to person through fecal-oral or oral-oral routes. 

Another common cause is long-term use of some over-the-counter pain medicines which can reduce the body’s ability to protect the stomach from damage.

Less common causes can include heavy alcohol use and a family history of ulcers.

Symptoms

·      Burning, cramping, or a gnawing or hungerlike pain in the stomach area.  This will usually occur one to three hours after eating a meal or during the night.

·      Nausea or vomiting

·      Pain that either gets worse or better with eating

·      Black, tarry, or blood stools which indicates the ulcer is bleeding

·      Heartburn or acid reflux

·      Lack of appetite

·      Weight loss

·      Or there may be no symptoms

Diagnosing an ulcer

If you have been experiencing any of the above symptoms for a while, go see your doctor.  Ulcers can cause complications which include bleeding into the stomach, a hole or perforation in the stomach or a blockage that interferes with food moving from your stomach to the small intestine.  Another serious and potentially deadly complication is the fact that if you have in ongoing infection with H. pylori, it can be a possible risk factor for stomach cancer.

To determine whether you have an ulcer, your doctor most likely will schedule the following tests:

·      A barium upper gastrointestinal series to help locate the ulcer.

·      An endoscopic exam which involves a passing a long tube through your mouth into your stomach to have a closer look at your ulcer.

·      Blood and breath tests to show if you have H. pylori in your digestive tract.

Treating an ulcer

Because there are different types of ulcers, treatment will depend on which type you may have.  But treatments could include the following:

·      Avoiding over-the-counter medicines. 

·      If the ulcer is caused by H. pylori, you will be prescribed an antibiotic.

·      Avoid taking aspirin

·      Reduce alcohol

·      Quit smoking

·      Modify your diet – there are many ways to do this.  Eat foods full of helpful antioxidant compounds.  These foods include olive oil, grapes, dark cherries and dark berries such as blueberries and blackberries, strawberries and cranberries.  Also add in fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, or sauerkraut.  These foods contain live bacteria called probiotics. Powerful probiotics make your gut environment less hospitable to ulcer-causing H. pylori while creating more soothing surroundings for healing ulcers.