If only Georges Halpern had known then what he knows now. Though today the physician, oenophile, and gourmand is the picture of gastric (and gastronomic) health, as a young resident in a Paris hospital in the 1960s, he was plagued by a peptic ulcer, at a time when conventional medicine had no idea how to treat them effectively.
“I was smoking three packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day, sleeping and eating erratically, and drinking bad wine,” he says. “My boss was a morphine addict, I was going through a divorce, and then I got drafted to fight in Algeria. You put all that together, of course you wind up with an ulcer.”
To treat the intense, gnawing pain that came on like clockwork four hours after every meal, Halpern swallowed spoonful after spoonful of bismuth subnitrate, an antacid—later found to be dangerous—that was a common treatment at the time. He also subjected himself to a series of painful injections of a formula containing vitamin C and iron, another tactic that’s since been discredited.
At least he was spared some of the more bizarre therapies being explored back then, like doses of partially digested beefsteak injected rectally or intravenous injections of milk. “People were just trying everything,” he says. “Doctors didn’t understand what causes ulcers, and there was no standard treatment.”
Fortunately, medicine has come a long way in the past 40 years. Thanks to groundbreaking research in the 1980s and ‘90s, doctors now know that most peptic ulcers are caused by bacteria called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) and can easily be treated with antibiotics. These drugs, though, aren’t without a downside; they often bring on side effects, including gas, diarrhea, and yeast infections. And at least 10 percent of the time, the antibiotics never quite nip the infection.
In such cases, patients must rely on antacids, both prescription and over-the-counter, which physicians also recommend. But while they do help block pain, they don’t address the root causes of ulcers.
Sure, things could be worse—rectal beefsteak, anyone?—but Halpern, who’s now on the medical faculty at the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong as well as at the University of California, Davis, is convinced there’s a better way. It involves a supplement called zinc carnosine, which has been used successfully for about a decade in Japan and recently became available here.
While we’re accustomed to thinking of antibiotics as wonder workers without equal, get this: In about two-thirds of cases, zinc carnosine alone will get rid of an ulcer. And when taken along with standard antibiotics, it can actually boost their effectiveness.
If it’s so great, why haven’t we been hearing about it? It’s an old story, says naturopathic physician Jonathan Goodman, of the University of Bridgeport’s College of Naturopathic Medicine in Bridgeport, Connecticut: “It hasn’t caught on here because it doesn’t have the juggernaut dollars the drug industry brings to promoting its products—plain and simple.”
You and your belly
To understand how zinc carnosine can heal an ulcer, it helps to know what normally goes on in your gut.
The stomach produces strong acid that helps break down food, so its lining (and that of the duodenum, the top section of the small intestine) is coated with a thin layer of mucus that protects it from the caustic acid. The trouble starts when that protective layer wears away in places—usually because of H. pylori infection. The bug is present in half the population and for many people, it’s harmless. In some, though, it gets out of control and begins to eat away at the mucosal layer, leaving the stomach or duodenal lining exposed to the acid.
Though researchers have yet to determine exactly why some people infected with H. pylori get ulcers and some never do, many familiar culprits—like smoking, drinking, and stress—are believed to play a role. (See “How Not to Get an Ulcer,” page 34.) Another major risk factor is long-term use of aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen. Genetic predisposition may also play a role, and some people are just unlucky enough to be exposed to especially virulent strains of H. pylori.
Zinc carnosine seems to work by coating the stomach and duodenal walls, protecting the ulcer from stomach acid so it can heal. That protective coating also serves to actively repair the wall’s mucosal lining. It even appears to inhibit the growth of H. pylori, which is how it adds to antibiotics’ bug-killing power. Zinc carnosine has no known side effects and doesn’t change the pH balance of the stomach, so it doesn’t interfere with the stomach’s natural ability to inhibit bacteria.
It’s unfortunate that zinc carnosine doesn’t offer the immediate symptomatic relief that antacids do. But the substantial upside is that by working with the body’s natural germ-fighting and healing abilities, the supplement can offer lasting help.
If you think you may have an ulcer, it’s important to get a professional diagnosis to be sure. The main symptom is a recurring burning pain localized in the area between the belly button and the breastbone that is often relieved by eating. But since other digestive troubles like heartburn, acid reflux disease, and even stomach cancer can bring on similar symptoms, you should get a conventional medical workup—which may include an endoscopy—if an ulcer is suspected. Once you know for sure, you can decide how to approach it.
Both Halpern and Goodman say that in the case of a peptic ulcer, it’s best not to reject antibiotics entirely. The most effective approach, they say, is an integrative one that combines a single course of antibiotics with zinc carnosine supplements. In this two-pronged strategy, each substance boosts the effectiveness of the other.
But if you do decide you want to fight your ulcer without antibiotics, try zinc carnosine alone for eight weeks; chances are it will do the trick. Whatever course you take, you should find an integrative doctor to help supervise your treatment.
With or without antibiotics, the standard dosage of zinc carnosine is 75 milligrams a day; it’s best to take two 37.5-mg tablets—one in the morning and the other before bed.
Currently, there are several brands on the market, including PepZin-GI, available at GNC stores (gnc.com); Ulcetrol, from NOW Foods (nowfoods.com), and Nature’s Lining from LaneLabs (lanelabs.com). After taking zinc carnosine for eight weeks, check in with your doctor and get retested—chances are good that your ulcer will be a thing of the past.
As for Halpern’s ulcer, it did ultimately heal after several painful months. For many years now, he’s been able to enjoy the fine food and wines that are among his chief pleasures, without fear. (In fact, he’s one of only a handful of people in the world to have earned the prestigious title of Commander in the French National Order of Mérite Agricole, an honor he received in part for his efforts to promote the notion that wine is medicine and that pleasure promotes health.)
Halpern would also like people to know that, contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s possible that moderate amounts of red wine might actually help prevent ulcers, since it kills H. pylori. So feel free to treat yourself to a glass with your dinner, he says.
But, the oenophile hastens to add, “It must be good wine—and above all, you must enjoy it.”
How Not to Get an Ulcer
Stop fretting. The discovery that H. pylori infection, not stress, is the primary cause of ulcers may make you think your worrywart tendencies have nothing to do with your stomach trouble. But that’s not quite the case. The bacteria are spread through human contact and contaminated food and water, so anything that lowers your immunity—and stress can be a prime culprit—is likely to make you more susceptible. (Scientists can give rats bleeding ulcers simply by tying them down for several hours.) Here are some other ways to avoid an ulcer.
Quit puffing. Smoking, another immunity-sapper, can also contribute to ulcers. So don’t do it. Enough said.
Load up on bacteria-killing yogurt. Versions with live active cultures can help the stomach keep bacterial infections in check.
Steer clear of hard liquor. While red wine can kill the bacteria that cause ulcers, higher-proof liquor can irritate the stomach lining and contribute to ulcers.
Eat what you want. Their bad reputation notwithstanding, spicy foods don’t really cause ulcers (though some may aggravate an existing one). It seems counterintuitive, but the specific foods you eat really don’t matter that much, says naturopathic physician Jonathan Goodman of the University of Bridgeport’s College of Naturopathic Medicine in Bridgeport, Connecticut.