Mastic is a Natural Killer of H. pylori

Children's H. pylori Infection
Can Endanger the Family

Long-term infection carries into adulthood and increases
the risk for ulcers and stomach cancer
By Aaron W. Jensen, Ph.D.

acteria can be found nearly everywhere on earth, including many places one would hardly imagine as bacterial havens. They have been found, e.g., in the sulfurous thermal pools of Yellowstone National Park, in Antarctic ice, in deep-ocean thermal vents, and in oxygen-depleted swamps (where they produce methane, or swamp gas). Other types of bacteria thrive in high-salt conditions such as that of the Great Salt Lake, which is several times saltier than the sea. And some even thrive in the hostile environment of the human stomach.

We're talking here about Helicobacter pylori, a microorganism perfectly at home in the highly acidic "soup" of your stomach, whose pH is about 1.5-2.5.* This low pH (high acidity) would destroy normal tissues, but your stomach is lined with a protective coating of mucus that normally keeps the sensitive underlying cells out of harm's way. Although the mucus undergoes constant replenishment, it is susceptible to attack and degradation by various agents, with potentially painful results.


*By comparison, your mouth has a pH of about 6.0-6.5. This difference may not sound like much, but the pH scale is logarithmic, so a difference of 1 pH unit is equivalent to a 10-fold difference in acidity, and the difference of 4 pH units between your mouth and your stomach is equivalent to a 10,000-fold difference in acidity.



Human anatomy of the upper gastrointestinal tract.
Most bacteria can't survive in stomach acid, but H. pylori can. It contains an enzyme, urease, that allows it to make ammonia, an alkaline compound that neutralizes acid molecules. By secreting this protective substance, the bacteria avoid destruction and are able to burrow through the mucous lining to reach the underlying cells. There they multiply and can stay in your stomach indefinitely. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to exterminate them before they do you serious harm. We will see how a natural substance called mastic can accomplish this.

H. pylori Is the Leading Cause of Peptic Ulcers

Helicobacter pylori was so named because it has a helical shape and was first found in the pylorus, the lower part of the stomach, right before the duodenum, which is the first part of the small intestine. This pernicious little bacterium was discovered in 1982 by Australian researchers, who subsequently showed that it is a major cause of gastritis (stomach inflammation) and ulcers. Now we know that H. pylori infection is by far the leading cause of ulcers, both gastric (stomach) and duodenal; these two types are collectively called peptic ulcers.

The Australian discovery came as quite a surprise to the medical world, because previously ulcers had been attributed mainly to stress, spicy foods, excess stomach acid, and unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as smoking and drinking coffee and alcohol. It turns out that these factors do not cause ulcers, but they can surely aggravate them. For example, smoking and caffeine can make ulcers worse by leading to increased acid production in the stomach, and alcohol may promote bleeding from stomach ulcers.

H. pylori Infection Affects Half the World

H. pylori infection is common worldwide. In fact, it is estimated that up to half of the world's population is infected with this ubiquitous microorganism. In the United States, H. pylori infection is most common in older adults and in population groups of lower socioeconomic status, including minorities.1 It is important to note that if one member of a family is infected, other members are more likely to become infected. It has also been demonstrated that adults with children in the home have an increased risk of infection, and the risk increases as the number of children in the home increases.2

Children are particularly susceptible to infection by H. pylori, according to a recent study.3 This finding raises grave health concerns, because it is known that such infections in children may persist well into adulthood and can cause lifelong health problems - not just an increased risk of gastritis and ulcers, but of stomach cancer as well.

Children Are at High Risk for H. pylori Infection

To gain a better understanding of the origins of H. pylori infection, researchers in Texas and Louisiana studied blood samples that had been collected from a group of 224 children over the 21-year period from 1975 (when they were infants) to 1996 (when they were young adults).3 The original study had to do with risk factors for heart disease, but the blood samples were well preserved and provided a valuable record of the presence or absence of H. pylori infection in these children as they grew up. The evidence was not direct, but indirect, through the presence or absence in the blood of telltale antibodies that are produced when an H. pylori infection is present. Thus the researchers could tell which children had become infected, and when, and whether or not they were able to lose the infection during the time period in question.

The results showed that children aged 4-6 have the highest rate of infection (2.1% of all children in this age group became infected each year) followed by 7-9-year-olds (1.5% per year became infected). While these numbers may seem quite low, the total infection rates increased during childhood, and by the time the children had become young adults (18-23 years old), 24.5% of them were infected. Once they became infected, furthermore, they tended to remain infected; the rate of enduring infection was 84%.


H. pylori is a major cause of
gastritis, and it is by far
the leading cause of ulcers,
both gastric and duodenal.

This study also confirmed earlier observations that minorities and low-income individuals were most likely to become infected, probably owing to their limited access to health care and their lower use of antibiotics - conditions that would allow the bacteria to flourish. The researchers noted, however, that genetic, environmental, and social factors may also come into play during the course of infection.

These authors concluded that, although H. pylori infection can occur at any time in an individual's life, early childhood is the most susceptible period. The lead researcher, Dr. Hoda Malaty, summarized their findings by saying, "Recognizing early childhood as a major period of acquisition is absolutely an important piece of knowledge. Based on it, we can arrange our priorities about when to intervene and when we should start to give the vaccine for H. pylori when it is ready."4 (There is much effort underway to develop a vaccine against H. pylori, but so far without success.)

Oral H. pylori May Increase Risk of Reinfection

One challenge facing those who have successfully rid themselves of H. pylori is the threat of reinfection. Although the bacterium is specifically suited to life in the stomach, it can survive in other environments perfectly well - in the mouth, for example. And since the mouth is the point of entry for H. pylori, which can proliferate wildly there, there can be a ready supply just waiting for the opportunity to reinfect the lower portions of the digestive tract.

We cannot prevent or eliminate bacterial growth in the mouth. The conditions there - warm, moist, and nutrient-rich - are just too favorable for the bacteria. We can, however, limit bacterial growth in the mouth. Recently, researchers in Turkey demonstrated that chewing sugarless gum or natural mastic gum reduces the amount of bacterial accumulation in the mouth.1 The chewing action produces saliva, which is important not only because it helps to "flush" bacteria from the mouth but also because it helps to remove residual sugar, the bacteria's favorite food. Other activities, such as brushing or flossing the teeth after a meal or snack - and, to a lesser extent, rinsing the mouth with water after eating - also help to reduce bacterial buildup.

Good oral hygiene not only helps prevent periodontal disease and gingivitis, it may also help, secondarily, to reduce the risk of stomach infections or reinfections with H. pylori. And there is one natural substance currently available to help you fulfill your goal of improved oral health: mastic gum. Importantly, mastic not only enhances saliva production, it also specifically destroys H. pylori. What could be better?

  1. Koparal E, Ertugrul F, Sanbah E. Effect of chewing gum on plaque acidogenicity. J Clin Pediatr Dent 2000;24(2):129-32.

H. pylori Is Implicated in Several Gastrointestinal Diseases

Not everyone infected with H. pylori will experience discomfort or symptoms of disease, but infection with this bacterium is responsible for over 90% of all duodenal ulcers and nearly 80% of all gastric (stomach) ulcers.1 H. pylori infection can also lead to gastritis, a two-to-six-fold increase in the risk of stomach cancer, and slower recovery from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). In short, H. pylori is no friend to your digestive system.

Peptic ulcers are a major health concern in the U.S. today. Ulcer-related events result in over one million hospitalizations annually.1 It is estimated that 25 million Americans suffer from peptic ulcers at some point in their lifetime, and 500,000-850,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. These statistics make it easy to understand why prescription antiulcer drugs generated 10.8 billion dollars in sales in 2001, up 14.4% from the year before.5 In fact, prescription antiulcer drugs as a category were second in total pharmaceutical sales, closely following antidepressants. Clearly, many Americans are opening up their pocketbooks to alleviate the symptoms of ulcers.

Prescription Drugs Are Effective, but . . .

Because H. pylori is a bacterium, antibiotics are effective in treating the infection. However, H. pylori quickly becomes resistant to several antibiotics when given one at a time. For this reason, a "triple therapy" is often employed. As the name implies, three different drugs are given to the patient simultaneously. This therapy typically consists of two different antibiotics (the most commonly used are metronidazole, tetracycline, amoxicillin, and clarithromycin) along with a drug that inhibits acid production in the stomach (called a proton pump inhibitor, such as omeprazole or lansoprazole).


If one member of a family is
infected with H. pylori, other
members are more likely to
become infected. Children are
particularly susceptible.

But are prescription drugs the best approach? The treatment schedule usually lasts 7-10 days, with the drugs taken twice daily. As one might expect, this high intake of drugs can lead to unpleasant side effects. In fact, one study reports that the triple therapy of amoxicillin, metronidazole, and omeprazole produced side effects in 42% of the patients.6 Fortunately, there is a simpler, more pleasant, and natural approach - it's mastic, the gum resin of the Mediterranean mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus).

Mastic Kills H. pylori Naturally

Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1998 showed that mastic gum has antibacterial activity and can kill up to 99.9% of H. pylori in an overnight incubation in the laboratory.7 The same British researchers revealed that small amounts of mastic gum - as little as 1 gram per day for a period of two weeks - are sufficient to alleviate the symptoms of peptic ulcers. In addition, mastic gum inhibits the growth of a number of other harmful (and hardy) microorganisms, including Staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia coli.


Mastic gum can kill up to 99.9% of
H. pylori in the laboratory. Small
amounts of mastic - as little as
1 gram per day for a period of two
weeks - are sufficient to alleviate
the symptoms of peptic ulcers.

While it is clear that bacteria are everywhere, it is also clear that you can do something to limit their growth in certain places, mainly in your mouth and your gut. If this is your goal, mastic gum might be just the right power player to help you turn the tide against disease-causing bacteria and set you on the road to improved gastrointestinal health.

References

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases. Helicobacter pylori and peptic ulcer disease. www.cdc.gov/ulcer
  2. Godwin CS, Mendall MM, Northfield TC. Helicobacter pylori infection. Lancet 1997;349:265-9.
  3. Malaty HM, El-Kasabany A, Graham DY, et al. Age at acquisition of Helicobacter pylori infection: a follow-up study from infancy to adulthood. Lancet 2002;359:931-5.
  4. Rolster S. Many US youngsters have ulcer-causing bacteria. Reuters Health, March 15, 2002.
  5. National Institute for Health Care Management. 2001 Pharmaceutical drugs sales figures.
  6. Reilly TB, Ayres RCS, Poxon V, Walt RP. Helicobacter pylori eradication in a clinical setting: success rates and the effect on the quality of life in peptic ulcer. Aliment Pharmacol Ther 1995;9:483-90.
  7. Huwez FU, Thirlwell D, Cockayne A, Ala'Aldeen DAA. Mastic gum kills Helicobacter pylori. N Eng J Med 1998;339:1946.


Dr. Jensen is a cell biologist who has conducted research in England, Germany, and the United States. He has taught college courses in biology and nutrition and has written extensively on medical and scientific topics.

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