I talked last week about acid reflux, and the medications that are often used to control it.
The same drugs – omeprazole, ranitidine and their relatives – are prescribed for stomach ulcers and gastritis too, on the basis that reducing the acid levels will help your stomach lining to heal.
And that’s true, though it doesn’t get to the root of the problem. Back in the day, before these medications were developed, patients were told to eat a bland diet – basically white fish and boiled vegetables – to avoid stimulating acid production. In other words, if you’re excited about eating it, it’s not allowed! And that helped, although it didn’t contribute to your joi de vivre.
But they might also have been prescribed Liquorice, which is still a mainstay for herbalists today. It’s anti-inflammatory, and it helps to protect the stomach lining. Slippery Elm does a similar job, and so do other mucilaginous herbs like Marshmallow Root.
But they still don’t get to the cause of hyperacidity.
Then there was a breakthrough; the discovery that people with stomach ulcers were more likely than others to have Helicobacter pylori in their stomachs. Not many bacteria can survive in hydrochloric acid, but this one can, and an overgrowth leads to irritation and often ulceration of the stomach lining. A course of antibiotics seemed to be the answer: kill off H.pylori, and the ulcers will heal. And that seemed to be true for quite a lot of people.
But nowadays, we know that antibiotics can be bad news in the long term, for the general population as well as the individual. We know that the various systems in our bodies – our mouths, our intestines, our skin – have a sophisticated population of bacteria, and disturbing the balance can have dramatic effects on our health.
What if, like thrush and other opportunistic ‘infections’, H.pylori gets out of hand when other bacteria are not there to keep it in check?
Antibiotics are a clumsy tool, killing all sorts of organisms as well as the ones we think are causing problems. Unless we work on establishing a healthy population of microbes, we’re left vulnerable to more infections, and without our allies to help us cope with digesting our food.
In traditional Indian medicine, yogurt is recommended alongside various herbs. Not only does it coat the stomach, but it also introduces ‘friendly’ bacteria. Other fermented foods like kefir and kimchi do the same. These older methods are slower and less dramatic, but they work on bringing things back into balance, and that may be more important than we realise. Damage to your digestive system can compromise your nutritional status, but it may also contribute to auto-immune reactions which lead to far more serious disease processes.