What is an Ulcer?
A peptic ulcer is a break in the tissue lining either the stomach or the duodenum (the part of the digestive tract that immediately follows the stomach). Normally, the lining of the stomach and small intestines have protection against the irritating acids produced in your stomach. Nature intended for the intestine to quickly neutralize this acid but this neutralization does not always happen. For a variety of reasons, the protective mechanisms may become faulty, leading to a breakdown of the lining. This results in inflammation (gastritis) or an ulcer.
The most common cause of such damage is infection of the stomach with a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori (H.pylori). Most people with peptic ulcers have this organism living in their gastrointestinal (GI) tract. However, not everyone who is infected will go on to develop ulcers.
Other factors can make it more likely for you to get an ulcer, including:
Using anti-inflammatory medications such as aspirin and ibuprofen.
Drinking alcohol excessively.
Smoking cigarettes and using tobacco.
Family history of ulcers.
A rare condition called Zollinger-Ellison syndrome in which a tumor in the pancreas secretes a substance that causes ulcers throughout the stomach and duodenum.
Many people believe that stress causes ulcers, others refute this. In any event, even if stress is not a causative factor, it certainly is a contributing factor. Stress may aggravate symptoms of peptic ulcers and, in some cases, delay healing.
Who is affected?
Duodenal ulcers affect up to 1 in 10 people at some point in their lives, and tend to affect especially younger men. Stomach ulcers are less common. They are rare in people before middle age and are most common in elderly people.
In Western countries the prevalence of H. Pylori infections roughly matches age (i.e. 20% at age 20, 30% at age 30, 80% at age 80 etc). Prevalence is higher in sub-Saharan Africa. Transmission is by food, contaminated groundwater, and through human saliva.
What to look out for
Abdominal pain is a common symptom but it may not always be present. The abdominal pain from peptic ulcers can differ a lot from person to person. For example, the pain may get better or worse after eating a meal.
Other symptoms include: Nausea, Vomiting, Heartburn, Indigestion, Belching, Chest pain, Shoulder pain, Weight loss, Fatigue, Vomiting blood (which may look like ‘coffee grounds’), Bloody or dark tarry stools.
Serious complications include internal bleeding, perforation of the intestine and peritonitis. In all cases, symptoms of an ulcer should be reported to a doctor. Symptoms such as vomiting blood or dark, tarry stools require urgent medical attention.
About 4% of stomach ulcers are caused by a malignant tumor, so biopsies may be carried out in some cases. Duodenal ulcers are generally benign.
With the increasing availability of over-the counter ulcer treatments, it can be easy to think of ulcers as just being a minor irritation rather than a potentially life-threatening problem if complications occur. Over-the-counter antacids and acid blockers may relieve the gnawing pain, but the relief can be short-lived. With a doctor’s help, prompt relief of ulcer pain can be obtained as well as a complete healing of the ulcer.
Conventional treatment often involves a combination of medications to kill the Helicobacter pylori bacteria, reduce acid levels, and protect the GI tract. This combination strategy allows the ulcer to heal and reduces the chances that it will come back.
If a peptic ulcer bleeds, an Endoscopy may be needed and a procedure carried out to stop the bleeding. If bleeding cannot be stopped in this way or if the ulcer has caused a perforation then surgery will be required.
How to heal ulcers naturally
First, is Aloe Vera. Most people know about Aloe Vera for its healing and soothing properties on the skin on the outside of the body. We all have skin on the insides of out bodies that line the digestive tract as well as the lungs, the sinuses and all the internal surfaces and membranes. Taking Aloe Vera internally i.e. drinking it has the effect of helping those surface and membranes to become healthy and remain in good condition. Aloe Vera helps to balance the immune system, is good for the skin and is also a natural anti-inflammatory agent so this is why it is helps when taken internally. As far as the digestive system is concerned, I have personal experience of helping people with ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease and more.
Second, are various herbal teas and their natural healing properties that can also work very well in existing cases of peptic ulcers or to prevent them from occurring in predisposed individuals. As with many areas of medicine, this is an increasingly popular way of keeping ulcers under control.
Continuing to follow these guidelines once the signs and symptoms clear can help prevent further outbreaks and minimise the need for medical intervention. This is integrated medicine – not to say that you shouldn’t go to your doctor because you should – but this can help alongside and can help the body to get back into balance and start to function as it should.
Dr. Sylvia Chukwuemeka is a Medical Doctor and a Consultant in Health Promotion and Natural Health. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health and a Member of the Institute of Health Promotion and Education, a Member of the Institute for Optimum Nutrition and a Member of the International Stress Management Association. She been a Natural Health Advisor on TV and radio in the past and is a freelance health writer.