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Herbs for H. pylori and gastric inflammation

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Recently, a colleague sent me the following question:

A friend in Canada tested positive for H. pylori bacteria. Of course, the Western doctor he goes to wanted to start heavy antibiotic treatment. Plus, he said he would need to be on some 'pill' for the rest of his life! He is refusing until he can seek out alternative answers to this. He is 70 yrs. old, does not have a hiatal hernia, just a bit of indigestion at times.

What is Helicobacter pylori?

Helicobacter pylori is a common bacterium that many have with or without any noticeable symptoms. Recently a study found that Otzi, the 5,300-year-old ice-mummy, was also infected with H. pylori. Today it is estimated that it is present in about half the population.

H. pylori is known to produce an enzyme, urease, that allows the bacteria to live in harsh acidic environments such as the stomach. Urease reacts with urea to form ammonia which can neutralize enough of the stomach acid to allow organisms to survive in tissues for years. It is highly contagious and is transmitted through saliva, fecal contamination in food or water, and poor hygienic practices in general. As stated, the good news is that most people do not exhibit any symptoms. However, if enough of the stomach acid is neutralized, it can be a factor behind many acute gastrointestinal problems such as gastritis and GI tract ulcers.

The Herbal Approach to GI Inflammation

I’ve been involved with the study and practice of herbal medicine since 1968. In all of that time, I focused on treating the patient more than the disease. This is because my model, traditional herbalism, does not focus on treating specific pathogens associated with a disease, but the whole disease complex itself.

In other words, a Western herbalist may treat gastrointestinal symptoms caused by H. pylori with herbs not specifically targeted to eradicating the bacterium, but with herbs that reliably treat ulcers, abdominal and acid reflux. An Ayurvedic herbalist might treat these conditions as a humoral imbalance of excess pitta. A traditional Chinese herbalist would treat it based on Eight Principles and pattern analysis. In all three models, there is no particular advantage in testing and discovering that the inflammation is caused by H. pylori.

Today, many complementary health practitioners seeking to impress their patients too often resort to describing their diseases based on a Western medical model. The problem is that herbs are more food-like than drugs, exerting a broader function on restoring homeostasis and health. Still, many herbs do have specific tropisms or indications. For the patient described above, look to herbs that treat symptoms of ulcers, acid reflux, belching, bloating, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain as symptoms of gastritis. All of these conditions are effectively treated with dietary and herbal treatment.

So while I’ve not treated H. pylori as a discrete entity, I have had a lot of experience successfully treating all the conditions previously mentioned. Because people have responded positively, I can only assume that the diet and herbs I prescribe regularly such as Triphala inhibit the growth of H. pylori.

Herbs for Gastritis, Acid Reflux, and GI Tract Ulcers

Bitters, triphala, goldenseal, and coptis are among the many botanical remedies taken singly or in a formula for treating gastritis, acid reflux, and gi tract ulcers. These herbs treat a broad range of gastric imbalances but have also substantiated research that they are effective for H. pylori. 

Berberine is a constituent of herbs such as goldenseal, coptis, barberry, Oregon grape and the Ayurvedic herb guduchi (Tinospora cordifolia).  All of these have been shown to have broad-spectrum antibiotic and antipathogenic properties. Studies in vitro have demonstrated that berberine can inhibit H pylori. While these may not be robust enough to eradicate the organism entirely (if that is even possible), when used in a compound herbal formulation for gastritis, or in bitters, along with probiotic foods and a balanced diet, they will certainly contribute to a multilayered comprehensive gut healing regime.

Triphala, an ancient Ayurvedic healing compound consisting of three fruits, Terminalia belerica, T. emblica, commonly known as “amla” and T. Chebula or black myrobalan (Chinese: he zi), also has broad spectrum antipathogenic properties.  Chebula or black myrobalan has been cited as effective against all harmful bacteria and specifically effective for inhibiting urease active of H. pylori.

The remaining two fruits in Triphala are also effective against H. pylori, especially amla (T. emblica). Amla fruit is one of the greatest antioxidants in the plant kingdom and is highly regarded both for its nutritional and for its medicinal benefits. It is claimed as one of the two or three highest known sources of natural tannins and Vitamin C which is impervious to both age and heating. Research confirms what native people of India have known for millennia, that Amla is good for the health of the whole body, especially the liver and GI tract. It is an effective treatment for gastritis, Crohn's, iBS, stomach and duodenal ulcers and to inhibit the growth of H. pylori in the stomach.

Tinospora cordifolia, called “guduchi” and “the body’s protector” is bitter, pungent and astringent with a post-digestive ‘sweet’ effect meaning that it is an antipathogenic herb with tonic-nutritive properties. It is one of the most powerful antipathogenic herbs of special benefit for inflammatory gastric disorders.

Deglycyrrhizinated licorice root (DGL) is a well-established anti-ulceration and mucosal healing agent. DGL can coat and soothe the intestinal lining and promote the healing of inflamed tissue and ulcers. Research suggests that flavonoids in licorice have impressive antimicrobial activity against H. pylori. The flavonoids have been shown to have antimicrobial activity against strains of H. pylori that were resistant to clarithromycin and amoxicillin, two of the primary antibiotics used in triple therapy. Some forms of licorice can elevate blood pressure but because DGL has low glycyrrhizin levels it is safe to take if you have high blood pressure.

Sulforaphane is a naturally occurring chemical found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and brussels sprouts. Some studies have demonstrated that it can inhibit H. pylori. Eating cruciferous vegetables, especially broccoli sprouts, will ensure that you get plenty of sulforaphane, but it is also available in capsule form from several supplement manufacturers, including a product called Broccomax.

Some studies have suggested that Vitamin C may inhibit and even kill H. pylori but more research is needed to determine the optimal dosing and program duration. Even if Vitamin C does not eradicate H. pylori, it is still worth taking a controlled dose because studies clearly show that Vitamin C levels in the stomach lining can be reduced when H. pylori is present, largely as a result of the inflammatory and oxidative stress caused by the infection. Vitamin C is also an excellent nutrient for assisting with gut healing.

Vitamin U – also known as MSM – is found in raw cabbage. In fact, Vitamin U is not a vitamin at all. Cabbage juice has been studied extensively in Russia and other Eastern European countries for the healing of damaged and eroded intestinal mucosa. It appears to enhance the healing of damaged tissue and may assist in healing ulcers.

When I consider what the most useful single herb I know with these same antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal – in fact, every ‘anti’ property we would need to fight off harmful  pathogens—is, it is Isatis tinctoria, an herb commonly known in old English as “woad,” meaning “weed.” As an ancient East - West cruciferous family medicinal herb, it happens to have all of the same antipathogenic sulfur compounds found in cruciferous vegetables and of course biologic MSM sulfur. Both the leaf and the root of Isatis are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine called da qing ye and ban lan gen respectively. These are classified as bitter and cold, which from an herbalist’s perspective means they are broadly antipathogenic and reserved for short-term use to treat the most stubborn pathogens such as viruses but are equally effective for bacteria and funguses as well.

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