Last month, The Lancet highlighted the work of Barry Marshall and Robin Warren ” the doctors who discovered the organism known as Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). H. pylori is now known to be the causative factor in many ulcers that occur in or just after the stomach. H. pylori has also been associated with an increased risk of other conditions including stomach cancer and heart disease. Growing recognition about the health implications of H. pylori has put more emphasis on the need for effective treatment. In fact, this month’s edition of the medical journal Gut contains an article which calls for a more aggressive approach to detecting and treating H. pylori. Conventional treatment for this condition revolves around the use of antibiotics, antacids and bismuth. However, recent research suggests that a natural alternative to pharmaceutical medicines exist in the form of a resin extracted from a Mediterranean tree. This plant extract ” known as mastic gum ” represents an important natural weapon in the fight against H. pylori and ulcer disease.
The lining of the gut is shielded from potentially damaging digestive secretions by a coating of protective mucus. Sometimes, this protective mechanism breaks down leading to the development of a raw area or ‘ulcer’ in wall of the intestine. The majority of ulcers develop in the part of the gut just after the stomach called the duodenum, though some occur in the stomach itself. Together, stomach and duodenal ulcers are referred to as ‘peptic’ ulcers. Peptic ulcers can cause considerable discomfort and are often associated with feelings of acidity and indigestion. A small but significant proportion of ulcers may give rise to potentially serious complications such as haemorrhage (bleeding) or perforation of the gut wall.
Mastic gum is extracted from the stem and leaves of the Pistacia lentiscus tree. Traditionally, the gum is used as a food ingredient in Mediterranean countries including Greece. One of the first studies to examine the medicinal effects of mastic gum was published in 1984. The trial found that mastic was effective in controlling the symptoms of 80 p.c. of individuals with duodenal ulcers. Just two weeks of mastic treatment led to complete ulcer healing in 70 p.c. of sufferers. The way mastic gum exerts its healing effect has been the subject of some debate. It was initially thought that it helped to protect the cells lining the digestive tract. However, a study published in 1998 shows that mastic has the ability to kill H. pylori, and this is now believed to be the gum’s main mode of action. Mastic gum is available in health food stores under the name Mastika. 1 g of mastic gum should be taken each day for 2 ” 4 weeks.
While H. pylori is undoubtedly an important factor in peptic ulcer disease and indigestion, it should be borne in mind that these problems can occur in the absence of infection. Testing (generally using a blood or breath test) is of importance here. However, whether H. pylori is present or not, certain natural approaches can help speed ulcer healing and reduce digestive discomfort.
Some foods seem to increase acid secretion in the stomach, and may increase the risk of ulcers or indigestion. One potentially troublesome foodstuff is milk. Many people with ulcers are advised to drink milk because it is alkaline and is thought to help neutralise the acid in the stomach. However, as far back as the mid 1970s researchers questioned the practice of drinking milk to relieve ulcers pain when they found that milk actually increases stomach acid secretion. More research in the 1980s suggested that milk actually delays the healing of duodenal ulcers. Other foodstuffs which have been shown to increase stomach acid secretion include coffee and alcohol. Anyone with indigestion or an ulcer should avoid these drinks as much as possible.
Certain nutritional supplements may also help combat ulcers by enhancing healing the gut wall. Vitamin A at a dose of 10,000 IU per day for women and a dose of 25,000 IU a day for men and zinc at a dose of 30 mg per day may both be beneficial because they enhance tissue healing. Another effective natural remedy for ulcers is deglycyrrhizinated liquorice (DGL). This compound appears to work by stimulating the secretion of the protective coat on the inside of the stomach. The normal recommended dose is 250 – 500 mg, 15 minutes before each meal and 1 – 2 hours before bedtime.