The first research on the effects of gastric acids on the
stomach lining was conducted by American Army Physician William
Beaumont (1785-1853). Beaumont studied a young war veteran
with an open abdominal wound. The wound did not close, but the
patient recovered his strength, giving Beaumont an opportunity to study
the digestive process. He noticed that the stomach lining turned red
when the patient became upset. This may have contributed to the notion
that ulcers were caused by stress.
As indestructible notes, the ulcer is a lesion in the mucous
membrane of the stomach. This mucous membrane is the protective barrier
that shields the stomach from the strong hydrochloric acid (HCl)
that is part of the digestive juices. Since it was
generally accepted that stress was the major cause of ulcers, the common
remedy was to reduce the stress levels. The symptoms were
controlled by prescribing food that caused less release of gastric
juices, and by H2 blockers; medication that reduces the acidity of
gastric juice. The H2 blockers may actually have aggravated the
condition, since the stomach reacts by producing more acid.
In the early 1980's, two Australian researchers, Dr.
Barry Marshall and Robin Warren noticed the presence of a spiral
bacteria, the Helicobacter pylori in patients with
gastritis. This bacterium was not recognized as one of the "normal"
occupants of the stomach in healthy people. Dr. Marshall was convinced
that this bacterium was the primary cause for ulcers and gastritis, but
the medical community was highly skeptical about this notice. Their
primary objection was that no foreign bacterium would be able to
withstand the acidic environment of the stomach (around pH=2).
However, Marshall found that this bacterium had been observed in patients
as early as the late 1800's.
Unfortunately, no one believed Dr. Barry Marshall. Thus, Marshall did what only the
greatest scientists in history do: He infected himself with the
bacterium that causes peptic ulcers. Marshall ingested a large dose of
the Helicobacter pylori bacterium to prove his peers that his
hypothesis was correct. Indeed, Marshall developed gastritis, and cured
himself with a simple dose of antibiotics.
Nowadays, the Helicobacter pylori infection is believed to
be the most common infection known in the world; approximately 10% of
the population will develop an ulcer at some point in their live,
although many carry the bacterium without any harmful consequences. A
general successful treatment of the infection is by using antibiotics
such as tetracycline and metronidazole. Some doctors claim that the
infection can also be controlled by simply regaining the balance of
bacteria in the gastrointestinal system (i.e. by only drinking
water, and avoiding sugar, juices, milk and coffee).
Note that certain rarer types of ulcers are not caused by an
infection with Helicobacter pylori. For instance, the Zollinger-Ellison syndrome, or large quantities of NSAIDs can also cause ulcers.
Therefore, always consult a doctor if you feel signs of a potential ulcer.