You’ve been bothered by chronic indigestion, perhaps leading your doctor to order an endoscopy so he/she could look down your esophagus and into your stomach with a camera, and, give you some tests. The finding? For many, it’s that their digestive system is harboring the intestinal bacteria H. pylori… now what?
In 1982, when H. pylori was discovered to be at the root of stomach ulcers, the medical community celebrated, immediately deciding that the news meant ulcers could be cured by an intense course of antibiotics to kill off all those nasty bacteria. But now we know that a wise treatment path for people with H. pylori is not so straightforward. Yes, the bacteria are linked to a host of gastrointestinal (GI) problems, including ulcers and even gastric cancer. But many of us carry H. pylori around in our systems without ill effects, and doctors have found that eliminating it entirely is associated with other problems, including esophageal cancer.
Friend or Foe?
Should we kill H. pylori every time we detect it? Probably not, says Eric Yarnell, ND, a clinical supervisor at Bastyr University’s Center for Natural Health in Seattle. When he sees patients with H. pylori-related complaints, including inflammation, pain and other symptoms, his goal is to restore comfort by replenishing the stomach’s natural defenses against the bacteria overgrowth that has thrown the system out of balance… but he aims for full elimination of the particular bacterium itself only in cases of recurrent illness or associated cancers.
Should You Follow Doctors’ Orders?
Conventional medical treatment of H. pylori infection uses a 14-day course of an antibiotic (usually clarithromycin or amoxicillin) to remove H. pylori from the stomach… as well as the antimicrobial metronidazole (Flagyl)… and either a bismuth-salt preparation to blunt inflammation and soothe the tissue or (more likely) an antacid proton pump inhibitor (PPI), such as esomeprazole (Nexium), omeprazole (Prilosec) or lansoprazole (Prevacid). If this triple therapy fails to make your symptoms go away, your doctor will next try instead “quadruple therapy” — tetracycline, metronidazole, a PPI and the bismuth compound for an additional 14 days. Many doctors also will prescribe the PPIs even longer, up to an additional three weeks.
Daily Health News contributing editor Andrew L. Rubman, ND, disagrees with this approach. He warns that these regimens bring significant side effects. If you take a PPI for longer than two weeks, you reduce your stomach’s ability to produce adequate amounts of acid to digest food and also reduce its innate ability to protect you from dangerous pathogens. Antibiotics indiscriminately suppress many beneficial bacteria as well as the ones making you sick and as a result can lead to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of H. pylori, paradoxically placing you at greater risk for digestive disorders.
A Better Way: Natural Therapies
Rather than attempting to eradicate H. pylori, some doctors may seek to get it back in “balance” by first calming irritation and inflammation and then restoring proper stomach function, including adequate acid production to stabilize H. pylori and prevent its overgrowth.
Dr. Rubman says that this safe and natural approach may include…
- Bismuth-based therapy. Bismuth salts, originally believed to simply coat ulcers and physically block erosive stomach acid, now are known to directly attack and impair H. pylori.
- Digestive enzymes. Once irritation is resolved, hydrochloric acid (usually the supplement betaine hydrochloride) helps reestablish efficient acid production, which may have been interrupted by the infection but is necessary for normal digestion.
- Manuka honey. Evidence supporting the use of this New Zealand honey is largely anecdotal, but you may find that taking some before meals and before bed, helps combat H. pylori. Discuss with your doctor how much to take if you want to try this therapy.
- Mastic gum. This natural resin from the sap of the mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus), which grows mainly on the Greek island of Chios, inhibits H. pylori growth, according to a study in The New England Journal of Medicine. Capsules can be found at iHerb.com and in health-food stores.
- Broccoli sprouts. A small Japanese trial suggests that broccoli sprouts activate protective enzymes. Unlike mature heads, the sprouts contain high levels of sulforaphane, a potent natural weapon against H. pylori colonization. These can be eaten in salads or on sandwiches as a way to help keep H. pylori in check.
- Bovine lactoferrin. Studies show that this protein from cows (consumed as a powder added to shakes and smoothies) improves the effectiveness of other therapies against H. pylori. It can be purchased at iHerb.com and in some health-food stores.
Rather than eradicating H. pylori entirely, a better approach is to tame the bacteria so it can play a healthful, not harmful, role in your digestive system, Dr. Rubman said. Seek immediate medical attention if you experience these symptoms: Vomit blood or what looks like coffee grounds… having bloody or tarry black stools… or experiencing sudden, severe and persistent abdominal pain.
While you may not be able to eliminate exposure to H. pylori, Dr. Rubman points out that people who maintain a healthy lifestyle — a diet of nutrient-rich whole foods, no smoking, regular exercise, alcohol in moderation only, etc. — are more likely to have robust immune systems and less likely to develop active infections or discomfort even if H. pylori is in their systems.