Stomach ulcers are a common and quite painful condition that affects people of all ages. Men are more likely to suffer from them than women. Often, the ulcers will get better of their own accord, but sometimes, the condition can be a warning sign of something more serious.
Highlighted below is an overview of what causes ulcers, as well as how they can be prevented.
What Are Stomach Ulcers?
Stomach ulcers are open wounds in the lining of the stomach. They share some characteristics with mouth ulcers in that they affect the internal tissue and they can be quite painful. Both stomach and duodenal area ulcers are sometimes collectively referred to as peptic ulcers.1
These ulcers can be very painful, but they usually get better with treatment. They are not dangerous by themselves, but someone who suffers from them regularly should seek professional medical advice because there could be an underlying cause that requires treatment. In addition, peptic ulcers can sometimes lead to complications including blocking of the digestive tract, internal bleeding, and infection.2
What Causes Ulcers?
The most common cause for stomach ulcers is a bacterial infection. The bacteria H. pylori is present in most people’s bodies but is generally harmless. However, it can sometimes cause inflammation of the stomach lining, which can then result in an ulcer. In some cases, stomach ulcers are caused by the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. These drugs can irritate the stomach lining, especially with long-term use. Ibuprofen and naproxen are two of the most common drugs with this side effect.3
There are also some lifestyle factors that can increase a person’s risk of suffering from stomach ulcers. Studies show that smoking is associated with increased risk of ulcers through two vectors: reduced blood flow, which reduces healing capacity, and increased presence of harmful compounds that may irritate the stomach lining.4
Stress, consumption of alcohol, and consumption of spicy foods are not thought to directly cause stomach ulcers; however, all of those factors may make the symptoms worse. Some studies have found that alcohol consumption could have a small impact on the likelihood of developing a stomach ulcer, but that any increase in risk is very small.5
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A second study into lifestyle factors found that neither coffee consumption nor alcohol consumption increased the risk of developing stomach ulcers. Indeed, it has been found that moderate wine consumption may have a protective effect.6,7
Symptoms of Stomach Ulcers
Some stomach ulcers are very small and do not have any symptoms. If you have a duodenal ulcer, then you might notice pain a couple of hours after you eat and at night when you have an empty stomach. With duodenal ulcers, the pain goes away when you eat. If the ulcer is in your stomach, however, you will probably notice that it becomes more painful when you eat.
Other symptoms of a stomach ulcer include indigestion, heartburn, nausea and vomiting, and persistent gas.8 While these symptoms are a warning that you might have a stomach ulcer, they are not too worrying. You should see a doctor as soon as possible if you find that you are struggling to swallow, notice blood in your bowel movements or when you vomit, if you feel full before finishing a meal that is normal sized for your usual appetite, or if you notice sudden unexplained weight loss.
Most stomach ulcers will get better with treatment. Your doctor will usually perform tests to confirm that you do indeed have an ulcer and will then prescribe you with some antibiotics to treat the H. pylori infection if necessary.9 You should finish the course of antibiotics, even if you feel better after a few days. It is important to make sure that the infection is completely eradicated by continuing to take the antibiotics because stopping early may allow some bacteria to survive, and this is one of the ways that antibiotic-resistant bacteria develop.10
While you are waiting for the ulcer to heal, you may want to avoid eating spicy foods or drinking alcohol. Find foods that you can tolerate and eat moderate quantities to try to reduce pain. Usually, the pain should go away after two to three weeks.
Lifestyle Changes to Prevent Ulcers
It is thought that there may be a genetic component to whether or not people are susceptible to stomach ulcers and some ethnicities appear to be more vulnerable to them than others.11 The stereotype that stress or a bad diet can cause stomach ulcers is exactly that. While it is true that stress and diet can make ulcers feel worse once you have them, the idea that they can cause them in the first place is a myth.12
With that said, it is possible to reduce the symptoms and potentially even make yourself less susceptible. First and foremost, if you smoke, quitting smoking would be a good idea because smoking can make your stomach less able to heal any damage and can harm your body in other ways, such as by increasing risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Additionally, though being stressed may not cause stomach ulcers, but it can negatively impact your immune system.13 Since stomach ulcers are caused by bacteria, having a healthy immune system is an important part of controlling them. Many people develop ulcers that are small and asymptomatic because their immune systems deal with them before they become a problem.
So, if you are struggling with recurring stomach ulcers or someone in your family is and you are worried that they may be hereditary, then you should look at ways of relaxing and improving your health. Regular exercise is useful because it boosts the performance of the cardiovascular system and can also help boost the immune system. Furthermore, studies suggest that exercise can help reduce the risk of peptic ulcers.14
Meditation, yoga, and mindfulness practices could also be helpful for reducing the risk of ulcers as well. If you find yourself frequently stressed, then try relaxing in a bath with some essential oils or meditating in a room with a diffuser full of relaxing scents. Lavender, for example, has been found to be useful for helping combat stress.15 You can use this essential oil and others topically after dilution with a carrier oil or aromatically in a room diffuser or personal diffuser like Zen MONQ.
What Foods Can You Eat with a Stomach Ulcer?
One of the worst things about having a stomach ulcer is that it takes time for them to heal, and it isn’t really possible to dull the pain, so while you’re waiting for your body to do its thing, you’ll need to find a way to stay comfortable and keep your energy levels up.
Many of your favorite foods may irritate your stomach while you have a stomach ulcer, so you should look for foods that you can tolerate well. A high fiber diet is a good start. Both soluble and insoluble fibers are useful for people with stomach ulcers.
In addition, studies show that vitamin C can help prevent the formation of peptic ulcers and that vitamin A may help to reduce susceptibility to duodenal ulcers.16,17 A diet that is rich in vegetables and whole fruits (rather than just fruit juice) could help reduce the symptoms of ulcers and prevent them in the future.
As discussed earlier, coffee and alcohol are not likely to actually cause stomach ulcers, but if but they may make them feel more painful. Instead of drinking alcohol or highly caffeinated beverages, focus on drinking water, green tea, and other flavonoid-rich substances. In addition to drinking tea for the flavonoids, consider eating blueberries, cranberries, blackberries, and broccoli.
For those who enjoy spicy foods, stomach ulcers can be incredibly frustrating. While people are taught that they should just avoid eating spicy food if they have an ulcer, you can often get away with eating small quantities. It all comes down to your own personal tolerance. Try small quantities and varying levels of spice until you figure out your own personal tolerance.
At the end of the day, the very occasional or once-in-a-lifetime ulcer is more of an inconvenience that can be easily remedied rather than a significant health concern. Nevertheless, it can still be painful and uncomfortable to deal with, so knowing how to prevent it by maintaining a healthy immune system, avoiding harmful substances, and managing stress levels can prove beneficial for your health and wellness in the long run.
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