Wonders of Science: Ulcers, caused not by stress but bacteria

Columnist Eric Rasmussen appears to be drinking a cup of coffee, or is he downing a bacterium called H. pylori to prove it causes ulcers?

by Eric Rasmussen

Uh oh. It’s that time of the year again. Tax season: W2 forms, spreadsheets, stress…and ulcers? A long-lived old wives’ tale blames stress for causing ulcers, but is that actually true? 

The human stomach is essentially a muscular bag full of hydrochloric acid manufactured by specialized cells called parietal cells. Amazingly, these cells can secrete acid that has a pH as low as 1.5. 

Now, if you were to stick your hand into a jar of 1.5 pH HCL, bad things would happen. Proteins in your skin would break down, and your hand would slowly dissolve. Our stomachs, to prevent such an event, produce a thick mucosal lining, replenished about once a week. 

However, sometimes that protective layer can be reduced, thereby allowing the digestive juices to chemically burn and eat away at the tissues lining the stomach — and create an ulcer!

A common belief has always been that stress causes these situations. Television programs often show an individual working himself or herself to the bone and then collapsing to the floor. But medical literature indicates essentially two causative agents of ulcers, and stress is not one of them. 

The first, less prevalent agent is NSAIDS. Medications like ibuprofen and aspirin must be taken on a full stomach. Otherwise, they can damage the gastroduodenal mucosa, the mucous layer.

The second agent, and key player in this whole process, is a bacteria called H. pylori. This little bugger is able to survive in stomach acid because it secretes enzymes that neutralize the acid, thereby allowing it enough time to burrow into the stomach lining. Once there, the growing colony degrades the protective mucous coating of the stomach, thereby allowing acid to erode the sensitive lining beneath.

Amazingly, this bacteria was not discovered until 2005. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren were awarded that year’s Nobel Prize for medicine for their discovery. Not only was this a breakthrough moment for our understanding of ulcers, it also is an amazing story in itself. 

When Marshall first presented his ideas, he was met with skepticism. So, to demonstrate that H. pylori was the real deal, he drank a beaker of H. pylori culture and quickly became ill with nausea and vomiting. Ten days after his self-inoculation, he underwent an endoscopy that revealed signs of the formation of an ulcer. Now that’s conviction to the scientific process!

Now, with all of this being said, it is not inherently wrong to profess that stress does play a role in the development of ulcers. Compelling research indicates that chronic stress can create opportunities for bacteria like H. pylori to wreck havoc. 

For example, individuals who have continuously up-regulated immune systems due to stress exhibit increased inflammation and immunological responses. These can comprise natural bacterial populations that exists inside us.* When this happens, H. pylori can establish itself and begin the path toward gastritis. 

In this light, stress may be seen as a contributor to the development of ulcers, but not the actual agent causing the condition. Either way, it still might be a good idea to have some calming music playing while working your way through this year’s tax forms. 

*There is amazing work being done by the Lowry lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder demonstrating that chronic stress in individuals can be attributed to the LACK of a bacterium called ‘bifidobacterium’ in the body. Patients inoculated with cultures of bifido show overall decreases in stress, and the down regulation of hyperactive immune systems. Essentially, this bacteria are being used as a natural remedy for stress and depression with results that rival traditional medications and antidepressants! 

Eric Rasmussen, BS, M.Ed., obtained his bachelor of science degree at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He majored in ecology and evolutionary biology, and now serves as a Learning Technology Coach at Erie High School and Erie Middle School in the St. Vrain Valley School District, CO.

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