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H. pylori Is Found in Over Half the Population - Could It Be Harming You?

Jonathan Vellinga, MD

H. pylori is a bacteria that infects the lining of the stomach, causing inflammation, pain, bloating, ulcers, and even stomach cancer. Unfortunately, the bacteria has become increasingly antibiotic resistant, creating a need for a different type of treatment method. Functional medicine’s combination of using emerging science, conventional medicine, and more natural, holistic forms of treatment is a great answer to treating H. pylori and healing the gut.

H. pylori

What is H. pylori?

When Helicobacter pylori bacteria enter the body, it makes a beeline for the stomach lining. It burrows there, reproducing and releasing toxins that harm and kill stomach cells (1). Stomach lining health is hugely important, and reduced cell count means less integrity and strength (leading to conditions like leaky gut). The stomach then has lowered protection from the acid it contains, leading to holes in the stomach lining, called ulcers (1). It also reduces stomach acids’ acidity, diminishing digestive effectiveness and leading to symptoms like bloating and nausea. As the immune system responds, the body may damage itself further, leading to even more discomfort and exaggerated symptoms.

How do you get H. pylori? What are the symptoms?

H. pylori is thought to be spread from person to person through contact with an infected person’s saliva, vomit, or fecal matter (1, 2, 3). It can be transferred through direct contact, or through contaminated food or water. While anyone is susceptible to it if exposed, some people are definitely at higher risk. Living or traveling to areas with crowded or unsanitary living conditions, a lack of clean running water, or living with someone who is infected will all put you at higher risk (1, 2, 3). Scientists estimate that somewhere between 50-66% of the worldwide population have an H. pylori infection (1, 3). While children are the most likely to get an infection from H. pylori, you can contract it at any age. It is hard to eradicate, so much so that over half of the people with an H. pylori infection are over the age of 50 (3). In developing countries, up to 80% of the population could be infected (4).

This could be, in part, because many people with an infection don’t have any symptoms (2, 3). However, symptoms can develop and can be quite uncomfortable. Common symptoms include (1, 2, 3):

  • Aching, burning, or sharp stomach pain

  • Bloating

  • Burping

  • Lack of appetite

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Unintentional weight loss

  • Stomach pain that is more severe when the stomach is empty

  • Stomach pain that is relieved when treated with antacids

  • Inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis)

  • Ulcers

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • Bloody or black stool

  • Trouble breathing

  • Dizziness, fainting

  • Exhaustion

  • Pale skin

If left unchecked, H. pylori infection can lead to chronic gastritis, peptic ulcers, duodenal ulcer disease, stomach or intestinal bleeding, holes or perforations in the stomach wall, blockages, or even stomach cancer (2, 3, 4, 5).

H. pylori Diagnosis and Conventional Treatment

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms above, your physician may suspect H. pylori and recommend running some tests. Depending on your symptoms, severity of pain, and the potential presence of ulcers, you may be offered blood tests, a stool culture, breath tests, or even an upper endoscopy (2). If H. pylori is detected, the conventional route of treatment involves antibiotics and antacids.

When H.pylori was first discovered in the 1980s, it was an incredible revelation. Ulcers were not often caused by smoking, stress, spicy foods, or acidic foods alone, as previously thought. Instead, it was this bacteria weakening the stomach lining! A regimen of three types of medication (two types of antibiotics and an acid-suppressing drug such as bismuth citrate or proton pump inhibitor) working in tandem was quickly adapted and successfully eradicated H. pylori in over 90% of cases for about twenty years (4, 5). However, H. pylori has quickly become antibiotic resistant, and rates of successful eradication have been reduced to less than 70% on the first treatment, which is about 10% lower than the general scientific consensus on acceptable rates for H. pylori treatment (5).

Four weeks after the first round of triple therapy, it is standard practice to run another test to determine if it has fully removed the H. pylori infection. If it has not, the next course of action for most conventional medicine practices is to prescribe another round of triple therapy using different types of antibiotics, or including both bismuth citrate and a proton pump inhibitor. Depending on the resistance of the particular H. pylori strain, this is effective for 75-79% of those who did not see desired results from the first round of therapy (4, 5).

However, the effects of antibiotics on the digestive system are well known and may cause greater discomfort for those already experiencing the side effects above, especially if undergoing multiple rounds of antibiotics. Nausea, diarrhea, and even further reduced gut health are common, making symptoms far worse for a time and creating a greater need for healing after treating H. pylori (4, 5). Additionally, while bismuth is generally considered nontoxic, long-term use (such as to treat chronic heartburn or ulcer pain) can occasionally cause side effects and toxicity (6, 7). With all of this in mind, the conventional treatment plan is no longer effective enough to stand alone.

A Functional Approach

Functional medicine always seeks to look at the whole picture of your health, the general side effects of any treatment plan, and how those general treatment plans may affect you specifically. In terms of H. pylori, studies have been showing with consisten