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What Is The H. pylori Bacteria?

H. pylori, short for Helicobacter pylori, is a tiny spiral-shaped bug that’s more common than you might think. It’s estimated that a whopping 66% of the world’s population carries this bacteria in their gut. Imagine that—two out of every three people you meet could have it!

It has little tails called flagella that let it move and stick inside your stomach. It’s also known as the “ulcer bacteria” because produces a harmful substance known as cytotoxin (vacuolating cytotoxin A or Vac-A), that causes gastritis or the inflammation of the stomach lining. Even more alarming, recent studies suggest that this bacteria may also increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

What’s truly astounding (and kind of terrifying) is you might carry this bacteria for your whole life and never know it. Yes, you heard that right. Many folks walk around, go about their day, eat, sleep, and never have a clue that they’re carrying H. pylori. It’s super contagious.

How Do You Get H. pylori?

You usually get it when you’re a kid. H. pylori can be passed from person to person through direct contact with saliva, vomit, or fecal matter. This means that sharing utensils, drinking from the same glass, or even kissing can potentially spread H. pylori if the bacteria are present.

The bacteria can also spread through consumption of food and water that has been contaminated with H. pylori. This is more common in areas with poor sanitation practices.

Why some people don’t have any issues with H. pylori and some do?

Genetic Susceptibility: Individuals may have genetic predispositions that either increase their susceptibility to the harmful effects of H. pylori or provide some degree of protection against them. The diversity in human immune response genes means that some people can mount a more effective immune response to the bacteria, keeping the infection in check.

Strain Virulence: Not all H. pylori strains are equally harmful. Some strains carry specific virulence factors, such as the CagA protein, that can increase the risk of developing ulcers and gastric cancer. The presence of these virulent strains in some individuals could explain the variation in disease manifestation.

Environmental and Lifestyle Factors: Diet, smoking, and stress levels can influence the severity of H. pylori-related symptoms. For instance, diets high in salt and processed foods may exacerbate the harmful effects of the bacteria.

Stomach Acidity and Health: The condition of the stomach’s protective lining and the amount of gastric acid present can affect how severely H. pylori impacts an individual. A healthy stomach lining and proper acid balance can help in partly neutralizing the threat posed by H. pylori.

What H. pylori does in the stomach?

Once it’s inside and it overgrows, H. pylori invades and inflames your stomach’s lining.

First, it attacks the stomach lining: H. pylori has a special way of making itself at home. It burrows into the mucus layer of the stomach and clings onto the stomach lining. Normally, this lining protects your stomach from the harsh acids that digest food. But H. pylori messes with this protective layer.

Then, it targets the parietal cells of the stomach. These guys are responsible for making stomach acid, a necessary substance needed for many stages of digestion. H. pylori secretes an enzyme that neutralizes the stomach acid, reducing the acid’s power. This stomach acid, also known as hydrochloric acid, is crucial for breaking down protein and for the absorption of vitamins and minerals.

Your stomach acids are also your first line of defense. It eliminates harmful pathogens like parasites that you might accidentally swallow, shielding you from possible infections. Furthermore, it decreases your stomach’s pH, setting off other important processes further down your digestive path. These include the release of enzymes and stimulating your gallbladder to release bile, crucial for healthy digestion.

Stomach acidity is a vital element of your digestion. But, that’s exactly where H. pylori strikes. It injures the cells responsible for making stomach acid. Why does it do this? Because H. pylori thrives in an environment that’s less acidic or more basic. So, by damaging these cells, it’s essentially remodeling your stomach to create a comfy habitat for itself.

So What Does it Mean For Our Gut?

One of the chief roles of stomach acid is to prevent bacterial overgrowth. At a pH of 3 or less (the normal pH of the stomach), most bacteria can’t survive for more than 15 minutes. But when stomach acid is insufficient and the pH of the stomach rises above 5, bacteria begin to thrive.

You see, our gut is home to trillions of bacteria. Normally, these bacteria live in perfect balance and help our bodies by breaking down food and supporting our immune system. When there’s a lower level of stomach acid, the chances of having more harmful bacteria increase. This is because the normal strong stomach acid that helps kill these unwanted bacteria isn’t as potent as it should be. In short, less stomach acid means less defense for our gut against other harmful bacteria, putting our gut microbiota out of balance.

Think of this balance like a seesaw in a playground. When both sides are balanced, it’s easy for kids to enjoy a smooth ride, right? Our gut is similar to this seesaw. It thrives when there’s a balanced mix of bacteria – both the good guys and the not-so-good guys.

Now, the ideal scenario is one where the friendly bacteria are on one side of the seesaw, and the less friendly bacteria take up the other side, ensuring a perfect balance and keeping everything working as it should. The good bacteria help us break down food, absorb nutrients, and fight off infections. The not-so-good bacteria, well, they’re not as helpful, but when kept in check, they don’t cause any harm. But what happens when the balance is disrupted? Ever seen a seesaw with one side heavier than the other? Not so fun, right?

Just this lack of balance is what we call dysbiosis; and if anything in your system is off you can assume that you likely have dysbiosis. Dysbiosis represents a situation where the not-so-good bacteria have taken over the seesaw. They’re hogging the space and creating chaos, pushing out the friendly bacteria and disrupting the harmonious balance.

Leaky Gut

But it doesn’t stop there. As, H pylori weakens our stomach’s defense against the very acid that’s meant to keep intruders out, it also damages the stomach lining. This lead to a condition known as leaky gut syndrome. Normally, our intestines have a tight barrier that controls what gets absorbed into the bloodstream. Leaky gut syndrome is when this lining gets all inflamed and irritated, creating tiny holes. This allows partially digested food, toxins, and bacteria to “leak” through the intestines into the bloodstream.

The damaged lining is not just a minor inconvenience. It can lead to ulcers, which may bleed, cause infections, or even prevent food from moving through your digestive tract properly.

As our gut lining gets compromised, so does our immune system, liver, and lymphatic system. This opens the door to some of the most challenging diseases to cure, including autoimmunity—conditions where the body begins attacking its own tissues.

And if that wasn’t enough, H. pylori can also “drill” holes in your gut, allowing substances that shouldn’t normally enter your bloodstream to do so. This can overwhelm our body’s capacity to detoxify, leading to various symptoms, including brain fog, allergies, fatigue, and even chronic illnesses.

To add to the trouble, H. pylori doesn’t just sit quietly. It consumes nutrients essential for our body, like vitamin B12 and manganese, and neutralizes stomach acid which is crucial for the absorption of important minerals. This interference can affect our cells’ mitochondria, reducing overall energy levels and slowing down detoxification processes in the body.

The Risks of Ignoring H.pylori

So, brushing aside this tiny bacteria could lead to big health problems. While many people with H. pylori may not experience immediate symptoms, the long-term effects can be serious. Here’s what you should know about the complications that can arise from an H. pylori infection:

Peptic Ulcers: H. pylori can cause painful sores known as peptic ulcers in your upper digestive tract. These aren’t just any minor irritations; they can lead to serious discomfort and health issues.

Stomach Linings Wearing Away: In more severe cases, an untreated peptic ulcer can wear away the lining of your stomach. This erosion can introduce a whole new set of problems, such as:

Bleeding: Imagine a blood vessel being eroded by an ulcer. This can cause internal bleeding, which might not be immediately noticeable but can be life-threatening.

Perforation: This is as scary as it sounds. A hole can form in the wall of your stomach or the first part of your small intestine (duodenum), leading to peritonitis, an urgent medical condition.

Blockage: An ulcer located in just the wrong spot can block food from exiting your stomach properly. This can cause vomiting, weight loss, and severe discomfort.

Stomach Cancer: Perhaps the most alarming complication is the link between H. pylori and stomach cancer. The constant irritation caused by the bacteria can lead to changes in the stomach lining, eventually leading to cancer in some cases.

Even more alarming, recent studies suggest that this bacteria may also increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. While the exact link between H. pylori and Alzheimer’s is still being explored, it’s thought that the inflammation and other changes caused by an H. pylori infection might contribute to the development of this serious condition affecting the brain.

How To Know If You Have H. Pylori

As I said earlier, sometimes you don’t even know that you have it. It can be silent. It can also mimic common digestive troubles that you might not immediately link to an infection. This bacteria sneaks into your gut and can live there for years without causing any noticeable symptoms.

For some people it will manifest as heartburn. This isn’t just the regular discomfort after a spicy meal, but a persistent feeling that something’s burning in your chest. This could be a sign that H. pylori has set up camp and is an underlying cause for chronic heartburn, otherwise known as GERD or acid reflux.

You might find yourself belching more than usual. It’s not the typical “excuse me, I ate too fast” burp, but a non-stop series of belches that makes you wonder what’s going on down there.

Some more subtle clues include changes in your taste preferences or appetite. If you suddenly find that meat isn’t appealing anymore, or the thought of breakfast makes your stomach turn, H. pylori could be the problem. It’s a hint that your stomach is not as enthusiastic about digesting as it should be.

H. pylori can also be responsible for that constant throat clearing that some people have. It’s a real sign that your stomach is not as acidic as it’s supposed to be.

Testing for H. pylori

Well these symptoms are kind of your first clue, but you do actually need to do some further testing. And H. pylori is a little finicky to test for and not a lot of tests are really kind of gold standard.

  • Blood tests. These check for infection-fighting cells (antibodies) that mean you have the bacteria.
  • Stool culture. This looks for any abnormal bacteria in your digestive tract that may cause diarrhea and other problems. A small stool sample is collected and sent to a lab. In 2 or 3 days, the test will show if you have any abnormal bacteria.
  • Breath tests. These can check if there is any carbon after you swallow a urea pill that has carbon molecules. If carbon is found that means that H. pylori has made the enzyme urease. This enzyme makes your stomach acids less acidic (neutralizes them). It weakens your stomach’s mucous lining.
  • EGD (esophagogastroduodenoscopy). This test looks at the lining of your food pipe (esophagus), stomach, and duodenum (the first part of your small intestine). It uses a thin, lighted tube or endoscope. The tube has a camera at one end. The tube is put into your mouth and throat. Then it goes down into your esophagus, stomach, and duodenum. Your healthcare provider can see the inside of these organs. A small tissue sample (biopsy) is taken if needed. The tissue sample can show if you have the enzyme urease. It can also check the bacteria that is there.

Testing is always the first step in determining whether you have the bacteria or not. This is very important.

Wrapping Up

Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) is a tricky bacteria that can live in your stomach. Many people have it and don’t even know it! But when it gets out of control, it could cause a great deal of discomfort and even lead to problems in your gut. So don’t mess around, get tested and get treated. Remember you always knew there was a better way.

Hi! I’m Dr. E, The NP with a PHD. Several years ago, my wife was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and the only options given to us were heavy duty medications.

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