I’ve spent a lot of time writing about heartburn from alleviating symptoms with plant-based food to the down low on medications. Yet, while I’ve written about many of the common causes — lower esophageal sphincter issues, stress, diet, and even a malfunctioning gallbladder — the one topic never addressed are ulcers. It’s that burning sensation in your stomach, that cause of constant hunger yet always feeling full, the reason you have those embarrassing and incessant belches, and it may even be the reason your heartburn won’t go away.
Ulcers are an incredibly common ailment affecting “more than 4 million people in the United States each year.” Yet, what are ulcers? How do you know if you have one? What causes them? And, most importantly, how do you treat them?
What is an Ulcer
Ulcers are open sores on the lining of your stomach or your intestine. While the stomach lining “normally keeps the stomach from being hurt by stomach acid and digestive juices … [when] this protective layer breaks down, stomach acids can damage the walls of your stomach and cause an ulcer.” Depending on the sore’s location, you either have a gastric ulcer —on your stomach — or duodenal ulcer — on your small intestine.
Determining if you have an ulcer can be difficult as the symptoms mirror an upset stomach or heartburn including bloating, belching, feeling full, nausea, and heartburn. Symptoms generally manifest within “two to three hours after eating, or very late at night,” and can last a short couple of minutes or possibly hours. One of the identifying symptoms of an ulcer is a burning sensation in your stomach instead of your esophagus. While this isn’t a verifying symptom, it’s a pretty good indicator that you may have an ulcer.
Most ulcers appear a little later in life and seem to favor genders. For instance, “duodenal ulcers usually appear between ages 30 and 50 and are more common in men than women,” while “stomach ulcers tend to occur later in life, after age 60, and affect women more often than men.”
Common Causes of Ulcers
The most common cause of an ulcer is an infection “with a type of bacteria called Helicobacter pylori.” Many people don’t even realize they have Helicobacter pylori, also referred to as H. pylori, bacteria until they begin experiencing symptoms. If you go to your doctor with symptoms of heartburn or ulcer, they will most likely test you for H. pylori and, if positive, it’s generally treated with antibiotics called triple therapy — two antibiotics and “one acid-suppressing medication.”
This ailment can also be brought on by other stimulants including excessive use of over the counter pain meds — such as Aspirin, Aleve, ibuprofen, and Advil — consumption of alcohol and coffee, and even smoking. One misnomer is that a high-stress life may cause an ulcer to develop. Recent research has discounted this theory, yet, if you already have an ulcer, stress may cause you to be more sensitive to the pain.
One of the rarest causes of ulcers “is a condition called Zollinger-Ellison syndrome, in which stomach acid is produced in higher-than-normal amounts.” While rare, it’s important to note as a cause.
For ulcers caused by OTC drugs, it’s recommended to stop taking them immediately. For all types of ulcers, it’s recommended to include antacids “to neutralize gastric acids” or incorporate “medications to decrease the amount of acid produced by the stomach,” including proton pump inhibitors and H2 blockers.
No matter what, before beginning any treatment, it’s important to speak with a medical professional for the best course for you!