For a long time, it was thought that no bacteria could survive the acidity of the stomach. However in 1982, two Australian scientists were surprised to discover that the bacteria Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) was indeed able to withstand the effects of gastric juices. This bacteria forms part of the Helicobacter genus because of its external, corkscrew-like, helicoidal structure. The term pylori refers to the pylorus where the stomach meets the small intestine.
The scientists who discovered Helicobacter pylori in the human stomach were actually awarded the Nobel prize for physiology and medicine in 2005. Following this major advance, further research has expanded our understanding of the mechanism responsible for its development. Its very specific structure means it is able to penetrate the stomach’s mucus and mucosa. Once there, H. pylori produces significant amounts of an ammonia-producing enzyme called urease, which enables it to survive in the gastric mucosa.
As well as secreting urease, Helicobacter pylori produces toxins which damage the stomach, weakening the gastric mucosa and leaving it vulnerable to attack by gastric juices. They may also increase gastric acid production which encourages the development of chronic inflammation in the stomach, manifesting in frequent stomach pain.
In some cases, the gastritis caused by H. pylori can result in a gastroduodenal ulcer, a deep lesion in the stomach wall (gastric ulcer) or intestinal wall (duodenal ulcer). Helicobacter pylori infection is now considered the leading cause of gastroduodenal ulcers. In rare cases, it can contribute to the development of stomach cancer (gastric adenocarcinoma).
It’s estimated that half the world’s population may be infected by the bacteria H. pylori. Though contamination happens more frequently in childhood, Helicobacter pylori infection can remain asymptomatic and undiscovered for many years. A significant number of people are thus living with this bacteria without realising it.
It can be difficult to diagnoseHelicobacter pylori infection - medical tests are needed to confirm the presence and growth of this bacteria. There are, however, certain warning signs such as persistent, increasingly frequent stomach aches, abdominal pain accompanied by bloating, and nausea with loss of appetite.
Helicobacter pylori is normally treated with antacid-based triple therapy, aimed at reducing gastric acid production and limiting damage to the gastric mucosa. This tritherapy usually includes a proton pump inhibitor (PPI) and two antibiotics. In some cases, quadri-therapy with a PPI and three antibiotics may be used. Unfortunately, more and more cases of antibiotic resistance are being reported. The bacteria H. pylori is mutating and becoming resistant to antibiotics.
In view of this growing antibiotic resistance, a number of studies have highlighted the benefits of natural treatments for combatting gastritis and ulcers. Widely-studied, liquorice extractHelicobacter pylori: mastic gum. This natural gum has been used for thousands of years as a remedy for stomach aches and as an antiseptic. Studies show that this extract may inhibit or kill certain bacteria, including H. pylori.
The above-mentioned liquorice extract and mastic gum can also be used in a preventive capacity. Their activity is particularly useful in helping to protect the gastric mucosa from attack by H. pylori. Improving digestive transit may also be beneficial for prevention given that good digestive transit encourages the elimination of toxins including those produced by Helicobacter pylori. Alongside a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle, certain dietary supplements can help to maintain good digestive transit. One such supplement is psyllium seed husk, which contains a large quantity of soluble fibre, and probiotics, microorganisms recognised for their beneficial effects on the digestive system.