Promoting Stomach Health NaturallyDecember 2006
By Laurie Barclay, MD
Alarming statistics now show that tens of millions of Americans are infected with Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), a strain of bacteria that is implicated in the vast majority of gastric ulcers and can even lead to deadly stomach cancer. Not surprisingly, gastric distress is one of the most common complaints that prompt men and women to visit their doctors. Each day, your stomach may be subjected to factors that can induce gastric discomfort and disease, ranging from alcohol and prescription medications to chronic stress and dietary indiscretions.
In many cases, however, a routine visit to the doctor is not enough to provide effective, long-lasting relief of stomach distress. Over-the-counter and prescription remedies are often expensive, carry the risk of side effects, and offer only limited relief for gastric upset. Moreover, these stomach aids are increasingly less effective at eradicating H. pylori infection.
Fortunately, scientists have identified novel nutritional and herbal agents that provide synergistic support for stomach health and integrity by relieving inflammation, promoting tissue repair, and supporting the body’s defenses against H. pylori. One of these remedies—a complex of zinc and carnosine—was previously available only in Japan as a prescription drug for ulcers, but is now readily accessible as a dietary supplement in the United States. Together, these natural agents can serve as the foundation of a strategy to safely and effectively relieve chronic gastric distress and restore stomach health and comfort.
Getting to the Bottom of Gastric Distress
Stomach ulcers affect 20 million Americans, and even greater numbers suffer from heartburn and other gastrointestinal symptoms. In addition to producing disabling stomach pain, ulcers may cause bleeding or perforation of the stomach wall. Ulcers are responsible for 6,000 deaths and more than 1 million hospitalizations in the US each year. A revolutionary discovery by Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren so changed our thinking about what causes ulcers that their research was rewarded the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Contrary to popular belief, ulcers are not caused by stress or spicy foods, but rather by stomach infection with the bacterium Helicobacter pylori. This bacterium is the culprit in nearly 80% of stomach ulcers and in more than 90% of ulcers in the duodenum, the first portion of the small intestine.
Most of the remaining ulcers are associated with the widespread use of pain relievers known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs.1 Cells in the stomach lining require chemicals known as prostaglandins to produce a thick coating of gelatinous mucus. This mucosal lining acts as a natural defense by keeping acid contained in digestive juices from burning the stomach wall and by preventing harmful bacteria from entering the bloodstream or lymphatic system. NSAIDs block the production of prostaglandins, thus relieving pain and inflammation but also leaving the stomach lining susceptible to ulceration and invasion by H. pylori.
In the Western world, up to half of all people harbor H. pylori in their stomachs, as do even more people in undeveloped countries.2 While infection with H. pylori often causes no symptoms, it can cause gastritis, or chronic inflammation of the lower stomach wall. This in turn results in increased acid production from the non-infected upper stomach, which creates favorable conditions for the erosion or ulceration of the mucosal lining in the stomach or duodenum. About 10-15% of individuals infected with H. pylori will eventually develop peptic ulcer disease.
When the upper region of the stomach is also infected with H. pylori, the resulting inflammation sets the stage for stomach cancer or a specific type of stomach lymphoma. Eradicating H. pylori is therefore important not only to avoid ulcers, but also to lower the risk of developing malignant tumors.3
Since the discovery of how H. pylori affects the stomach, conventional treatment for ulcers and H. pylori infection has focused on antibiotics to eradicate the bacteria, medication to suppress acid production in the stomach, and an agent to protect the stomach’s lining.1 H. pylori is frequently difficult to eradicate, however, even with long-term use of these medications. Further compounding the problem is that H. pylori often develops resistance to antibiotics, thus rendering treatment ineffective.4 As a result, alternative or complementary strategies to support stomach health are sorely needed.
Fortunately, health-conscious consumers in the United States can now access an effective, natural approach to restoring stomach health. Approved in Japan as a drug to treat ulcers, a novel zinc-carnosine compound has been found to strengthen the mucosal barrier, coat the stomach, and inhibit both the growth and damaging effects of H. pylori. These benefits of zinc-carnosine are enhanced by cranberry and licorice, two natural agents that also support gastric health while diminishing the effects of H. pylori.
How Zinc-Carnosine Inhibits H. pylori
Scientists have long known that zinc and L-carnosine have antioxidant properties that promote tissue repair and healing.5,6 Zinc is an essential mineral contained in oysters, meat, seafood, beans, and nuts. L-carnosine, found in meat and beans, consists of two essential amino acids—L-histidine and beta-alanine—that are bonded together. When zinc and L-carnosine are linked by chemical bond in a single molecule, or chelated, their tissue-healing effects become even more remarkable. In fact, research suggests that a dietary supplement containing chelated zinc and L-carnosine is far more effective than a mixture of zinc and L-carnosine that is not linked with a chemical bond in reducing stomach irritation associated with H. pylori and repairing the inflamed stomach mucosal lining.7
This chelated formulation of zinc and L-carnosine, which is known as polaprezinc, is approved in Japan as the active ingredient in a well-known prescription drug to treat ulcers. Studies show that both components of the compound remain bound together for some time in gastric juice and that they coat stomach ulcers, releasing L-carnosine and zinc, which help promote the healing of stomach ulcerations and exert inhibitory effects against H. pylori. The zinc-carnosine complex which is now available to Americans as a dietary supplement is biochemically identical to the Japanese drug polaprezinc, and scientists believe it is equally efficacious and without any serious side effects.8
Animal studies have offered clues as to the mechanism by which the zinc-carnosine complex helps relieve stomach inflammation associated with H. pylori infection. The zinc-carnosine complex acts as a scavenger to consume a harmful agent called monochloramine that is released by H. pylori bacteria. Monochloramine contributes to injury of the stomach’s lining. By neutralizing this harmful agent, zinc-carnosine thereby reduces inflammation of the stomach lining, prevents invasion by white blood cells, and averts erosion of epithelial cells lining the stomach.9,10 Other researchers have similarly found that zinc-carnosine helps protect against gastritis induced by monochloramine released by H. pylori, and also helps heal existing stomach lesions related to the effects of H. pylori.11
For example, in rats that are prone to develop stomach ulcers, zinc-carnosine accelerated healing of these ulcers by increasing production of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), a natural defense known to promote gastric epithelial wound repair.12 By stimulating IGF-1 production, zinc-carnosine was similarly found to protect rabbit stomach cells in the laboratory, thereby promoting healing of stomach lesions.13
Zinc-carnosine has also been shown to enhance healing of the stomach epithelial lining, by inhibiting production of pro-inflammatory interleukin-8 and by preventing inflammatory white blood cells from adhering to epithelial cells.14,15 Additionally, scientists have noted that zinc-carnosine decreases the activation of nuclear factor-kappa beta (NFkB), a powerful inflammatory mediator that scientists believe plays a role in numerous chronic disease states such as cancer and arthritis.14 Scientists believe that strategies to reduce the activity of NFkB may benefit the entire body by helping to avert such diverse conditions as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. (See “What Is Nuclear Factor-Kappa Beta?” Life Extension, July 2006.) Zinc-carnosine is thus emerging as a powerful anti-inflammatory agent offering specialized protection for the stomach.