In past articles, we’ve talked all about the microbiome — the population of bacteria that live in your large intestine that boost your immune system, provide nutrients, and help keep your digestion on track.
But not every bacterial colony in the body is good. You already know that bacteria like strep and e coli are bad for you. But there is an insidious bacteria you may not have even heard of.
It’s called H pylori, or Helicobacter pylori if you want to be formal. And it’s an underlying factor of disease and dysfunction that I see often in my practice – especially in children.
H pylori is a fairly common bacteria found in the digestive tract. And it’s highly contagious.
It’s estimated that around 44% of the world population is infected.
If left untreated, H. pylori infections can lead to stomach ulcers, chronic gastritis and even stomach cancer. However, most of us never even know we are infected, as early signs and symptoms are discounted and overlooked, especially in babies and children.
Early signs that your child may have H. pylori:
- Distended belly
- Chronic tummy discomfort
- Loss of weight
- Loss of appetite
- Oral motor dysfunction
- Speech delays
- Food aversions and picky eating
For many of us, these “soft signs” are all too familiar. And yet, how many of us connect the dots?
In order to understand how H. pylori works, and why testing and treating is important, even in very young children, let’s dig into the workings of this stealthy bacteria.
H. Pylori: A Deep Dive
As mentioned above, the most well-known symptom of an H. pylori infection is stomach ulcers.
The ‘H’ in H. pylori stands for “Helico,” meaning spiral. This bacteria uses the spiral shape to burrow into the stomach lining where it is protected by the mucous and out of reach of the body’s immune cells. The perforations cause degradation in the stomach’s protective mucosal lining, leading to sores and ulcerations. These ulcerations can be intensely painful and dangerous when internal bleeding is involved.
Although not as dramatic, the “soft signs” of an H pylori infection can be equally as deleterious and can create a myriad of downstream issues for the host. Most important among these, H. Pylori alters the pH of the stomach, negatively impacting digestion, absorption, immune health and more.
In healthy individuals, the stomach is highly acidic, which is ideal for digestion, and as a first line of defense against infectious exposures like parasites or foodborne bacteria.
In order to survive in this inhospitable environment, H pylori secretes an enzyme called urease which effectively neutralizes stomach acid creating an alkaline environment.
Why is this important? The answer is several fold. First and foremost, we need ample stomach acid to digest our proteins. When digested correctly, proteins break down into amino acids, which in turn are used by the body to build everything from muscle tissue to immune factors to neurotransmitters. If the acidity of the stomach is disrupted and we are not digesting and absorbing our proteins efficiently, we are necessarily putting ourselves at risk for nutrient deficiencies which might impair critical functions in the body.
Moreover, when undigested protein particles are absorbed into the blood stream, they create an immune response triggering the release of mast cells and histamine which upregulate the immune system causing inflammation.
By creating an alkaline environment in the gut, H. pylori also encourages the growth of dysbiotic bacteria, and is associated with a higher risk for a range of infections, including parasitic infections, fungal infections and intestinal viruses. H. pylori is also known to cause leaky gut which is highly correlated with leaky brain syndrome, and has been found to play a role in the etiology of anxiety disorder, depression and the development and progression of neurological disorders.
Why aren’t more Practitioners Looking for H pylori?
Unfortunately, many of the early signs and symptoms of H. pylori are misdiagnosed and misunderstood. For example, we are all commonly taught that heartburn is a result of too much stomach acid. Quite the opposite is true.
Both reflux and heartburn are a direct result of too little hydrochloric acid or HCL.
HCL is the main digestive acid in the stomach, and is responsible for creating and maintaining the low pH needed to digest our foods, particularly proteins. When the pH of the stomach is off, the body is very hesitant to allow the food to pass on to the later stages of digestion. Instead, the food sits in the stomach and begins to rot, resulting in gas, bloating and heartburn.
The acid associated with heartburn is actually lactic acid, which comes from the fermentation of rotting food in the stomach. H. pylori infections also lead to an array of nutritional deficiencies, including magnesium, B12, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate and many essential minerals. As such, many practitioners get caught chasing the symptoms of these deficiencies without understanding the potential root cause.
Isolating H pylori as a causative factor is also complicated because it can express itself in so many ways, depending on the individual.
These include conditions like:
😳 Autoimmune conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, skin conditions, and autoimmune thyroid disease
😳 Osteopenia (reduced bone mass)
😳 Anxiety and depression
😳 Chronic fatigue
😳 Cognitive impairment and dementia
😳 Mast cell activation syndrome
😳 Systemic inflammation
😳 Altered immune function
😳 And more . . .
How do you get infected with H. pylori?
Most people get infected as children. This bacteria can be passed through saliva, vomit, or stool. Or it can be picked up through contaminated food or water. Children tend to pass H. pylori fairly quickly because (let’s face it), they don’t always have the best hygiene.
How can I find out if my child is infected with H. pylori?
There are a few options for the diagnosis of H. pylori:
Your child’s blood can be checked for antibodies to H. pylori. The presence of these antibodies indicates that the bacteria is present and your child’s immune system is attempting to mount a defense.
A stool test involves collecting a sample of feces. Then it is sent to a lab for a stool antigen test or a stool culture test.
A urea breath test will check for higher than normal carbon dioxide levels, which can indicate an H. pylori infection. This test involves two breath samples — with a pill or liquid taken in between. The results of the tests are compared for signs of H. pylori.
Can an H. pylori infection be treated?
Yes it can! In fact, the treatment options are fairly easy and straightforward.
In my practice I like to use mastic gum, a resin that comes from a tree grown in the Mediterranean. This is a safe supplement with a variety of therapeutic properties. It’s been shown to improve oral health, digestion, and liver health.
A small 2010 study found that 19 out of 52 participants successfully cleared the H. pylori infection after chewing mastic gum for two weeks.
High Dose Probiotics
While H. pylori is a damaging bacteria, probiotic supplements contain healthy bacteria. In my practice I find it’s possible to change the balance in the gut microbiome by introducing large doses of healthy bacteria.
There are also a wide variety of herbal and nutritional treatments available to get H. pylori under control. Herbals are typically gentle and easily tolerated by most people.
In my practice I use a variety including:
In the treatment of H. pylori, it’s important to get the body producing adequate stomach acid. Bitters are a natural and effective way to do this. Taking bitters can help your child’s body produce more stomach acid on its own.
How do I decide which remedies to choose?
I highly recommend you work with a practitioner. It’s important to find someone who understands not only the intricacies of this bacteria, but also the underlying factors present in your child’s health.
Solving complex health issues takes a multi-faceted approach. Just ordering some mastic gum off Amazon will not treat your child’s health problems, especially if you are dealing with something as complicated and nuanced as PANS/PANDAS.
But that’s why I’m here. I’ve spent years researching, studying, and working with clients on these issues. If you’re ready to get to the bottom of what’s really going on with your child’s health, let’s talk.
Book your complementary Discovery Call here
Photography by Luana Bento