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!
5 Foods that Worsen Ulcer Symptoms
Diet can play a large role in both alleviating ulcer pain and healing ulcers. To begin, there are certain foods that should be avoided. Some of these foods “relax the lower part of the esophagus,” which makes it easier for “acid to back up into the esophagus and cause heartburn, indigestion and pain.” Others have the ability to generate more acid, which can irritate the open wound of your ulcer.
Alcohol has a sedative effect. This extends to your lower esophageal sphincter or your LES. This small muscle keeps the acid in your stomach from venturing into your esophagus which causes heartburn. When you drink, the LES can actually slacken, allowing those stomach juices to creep up and irritate your esophagus. On top of that, for those that already have an ulcer, it’s been found that drinking “can actually make the condition worse.”
While coffee is not a risk factor for causing ulcers, it oftentimes has been documented to irritate the condition and make symptoms worse. Some findings have linked caffeine consumption and worsening ulcer symptoms, yet more research is needed. With that said, for the healing process it may not be a bad idea to steer clear of caffeinated beverages of any kind.
Similar to coffee, spicy food is not a cause of peptic ulcers, but it may worsen symptoms. For some time, it was believed that spicy foods were one of the leading causes of ulcers, yet, “in the 1980s, scientists put this old wives’ tale to rest … [and found that] spicy food doesn’t cause ulcers, though it can irritate existing ulcers.” Therefore, avoiding spicy foods while you allow your ulcer to heal is highly recommended.
It was a long-standing belief that milk actually helped heal ulcers and heartburn. This old myth has been quelled due to the fact that “although this may temporarily make the stomach feel better, it can ultimately worsen symptoms because it can trigger heartburn.”
As mentioned, it’s recommended to avoid both caffeine and milk, both of which have been known to aggravate preexisting ulcer symptoms. Unfortunately, chocolate contains both of these irritants. In fact, a “2-ounce serving of semi-sweet chocolate provides 44 milligrams of caffeine, and 2 ounces of bittersweet chocolate contains 68 milligrams, according to Amano Artisan Chocolate.”
They may be one of your favorite plant-based ingredients, yet, if you have an ulcer they are one of the worst foods to consume. This is due to the fact that they have a “below pH of 4.6, making them a high-acid food.” Any food with a high acidity “may trigger heartburn in some people and irritate ulcers.”
5 Plant-Based Foods to Promote Healing
While some ulcer treatment requires antibiotics, such as H. pylori, less severe cases can be healed through diet. By avoiding the list of foods above and integrating plant-based foods with healing and soothing properties, you may be able to avoid medication altogether in your ulcer treatment.
Probiotics are “good bacteria that are either the same as or very similar to the bacteria that are already in your body.” They are most commonly found in fermented foods — such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles — yet can also be consumed via supplements. These bacteria are known for their ability to increase the health of your gut and recent studies have shown promising healing benefits between probiotic-rich foods and gastric ulcers.
Most of us recognize fiber as a key ingredient for a happy and healthy digestive tract, yet did you know fiber is also a great healing agent for ulcers and heartburn? Fiber is known to not only keep your digestive tract healthy, but it also feeds the good bacteria in your gut, leading to better overall health and possibly more balanced stomach acidity. Plus, fiber can also prevent ulcers per recent research finding “that a high fibre diet decreases the risk of developing ulcer disease.”
Great plant-based sources of fiber include oats, — Oven Baked Oatmeal for One — legumes, — Chutney and Coconut Red Lentil Soup — flax seeds — Red Quinoa and Beet Burger — nuts, and certain vegetables and fruits, “such as oranges, apples, and carrots,” — Cheddar Apple Pie Oatmeal.
Consuming a diet rich in vitamin A has also been associated with a decreased risk of developing duodenal ulcers. This has been attributed to the connection between vitamin A-rich foods and their high fiber content. In studies conducted to determine the efficacy of vitamin A on ulcers, it was found that “vitamin A increases the production of mucus in the gastrointestinal tract.” This increased production of mucus may help prevent ulcers from developing.
Vitamin A is found in a variety of plant-based foods including sweet potato, kale, collards, — Smoky Southern Collard Greens — turnip greens, winter squash varieties, spinach and romaine, — Harissa Tahini Romaine Wraps and Salad — sweet red pepper, watermelon, — Watermelon Frose — cantaloupe, apricot, and carrot — Cantaloupe Cashew Cream Mini Smoothies.
Vitamin C is an essential part of a balanced diet, which helps “form blood vessels, cartilage, muscle and collagen in bones.” Vitamin C is also rich in an agent called ascorbic acid, which “plays a key role in healing and protection of the gastric mucosa from injurious insults,” such as ulcers. Those with a vitamin C deficiency are more likely to “develop peptic ulcer disease and its complications.” Therefore, getting the proper recommended amount of vitamin C — 75 milligrams for women and 90 milligrams for men — will not only help you avoid ulcers in the first place, but they also are essential for the healing process.
Vitamin C is found in many plant-based foods including acerola cherries, sweet yellow peppers, blackcurrants, — Healthy Blackcurrant Jams — thyme, parsley, — Detox Parsley Hummus — kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, — Orange Maple Glazed Brussels Sprouts — and strawberries — Strawberry and Radish Salad with Green Superfood Dressing.
While most caffeinated beverages should be avoided, green tea is one exception due to the high content of flavonoids. What are flavonoids? This term refers to “a diverse group of phytonutrients (plant chemicals) found in almost all fruits and vegetables.” Flavonoids — such as carotenoids, quercetin, and kaempferol — cause your vegetables to have those vibrant colors and also happen to be a leading agent for the reason why they are so good for you! When it comes to ulcers, flavonoids have been shown to ward off chronic gastritis and “inhibit the growth of H. pylori.”
Looking for creative ways to implement these ulcer-friendly, plant-based healing foods? We highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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