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H. Pylori: Friend or Foe?

Helicobacter pylori bacteria, or just H. pylori for short, have made a reputation for themselves as a likely cause of stomach and intestinal ulcers. According to some research, H. pylori cause greater than 80% of all peptic ulcer diseases. (1)

In severe cases, H. pylori may even be at the root of biliary tract or gastric cancer, as well as mucosal-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT) lymphoma. It’s estimated that nearly 75% of gastric cancer that isn’t linked to heart disease is caused by H. pylori. (2, 3, 1)

And yet the big picture of H. pylori and their effects on our health is a lot more complex than that.

The Who and What of H. Pylori

As much as 50% of the world’s population is infected with H. pylori, making that the most prevalent human infection in the world. (2

As a matter of fact, it’s very likely that we all have at least some H. pylori living inside of us. But unless we are tested for it, we may never know — and unless H. pylori become problematic and begin to make us sick, most people won’t bother getting tested. That makes it hard to gauge just how prevalent the bacteria really are.

Yet as far as we can tell, H. pylori are particularly common in developing countries — for example, in India, where 80% to 90% of the population have these bacteria. This is likely due to the living conditions in these countries, including food contamination, overcrowding, and water pollution, all of which contribute to infection and transmission. (2

In the United States, approximately 20% of adolescents and around 36% of the overall population is infected. Yet in North America and Western Europe in general, cases of H. pylori seem to be less frequent. (2)

A Long-Term Relationship with H. Pylori

Humans have been living with H. pylori for more than 60,000 years. The majority of people maintain a perfectly symbiotic, harmonious relationship with them, without developing any symptoms or illnesses. In fact, research has shown that the bacteria may actually have many favorable influences on the human body. (3, 2)

Whether you develop disease from H. pylori depends on a number of factors, including your diet, genetic background, immune function, lifestyle, and in general, your personal health levels and your body’s environment (your terrain). (3)

If you have been exposed to toxins or if your body has a toxic terrain, this can make you more vulnerable not only to becoming infected with H. pylori, but also to negative outcomes from the bacteria when they exist within you.

Therefore, despite the frequently neutral or even positive influence of H. pylori, an estimated 17% of infected people will go on to develop peptic ulcers, around 4% will have ulcer complications, and 1% could develop gastric cancer — which translates to approximately 500 million people with ulcers and around 30 million with gastric cancer. (2)

How Do We Get and Spread H. Pylori?

H. pylori are usually transmitted via dental plaque, feces, gastric juices, saliva, or vomit. But how we come in contact with those human (or in some cases, animal) excrements varies. That means that there are many ways that we can be exposed to H. pylori, including the following. (2)

    Contaminated food and water

    Polluted water is often a breeding ground for all sorts of bacteria and other pathogens. And unfortunately, feces entering the water system is often at the root of this pollution. That means that H. pylori abound in such waters — whether it’s our drinking water; the water we use for bathing, cleaning, or growing food; or in our recreational waters, such as rivers and lakes. (2)

    Where there is a lack of proper sanitation or where water pollution is a concern, H. pylori often flourish. (2)

    Our food sources can also be at risk for H. pylori contamination. That’s why it’s so important to focus on properly cleaning foods such as fruits and vegetables before eating them. They can be laden with not just bacteria, but also pesticides, toxic heavy metals, and other dangerous substances. Cooking your food before you eat it can also help eliminate such risks, as can proper detoxing. (2)

    A study showed that children who swam in rivers or pools, drank water from streams, or regularly ate raw vegetables that weren’t washed properly were at increased risk of having H. pylori.  (2)

    Direct contact with an infected person

    Yes, H. pylori are contagious.

    As with many communicable diseases or pathogens, we can pass H. pylori from person to person through direct contact. In fact, this is probably the most common form of transmission. In most cases, people who have ongoing and regular contact with an H. pylori-infected person are at the highest risk. Mother-to-child transmission is extremely prevalent, as is spouse-to-spouse transference of the bacteria. (2)

    Children usually become infected with H. pylori before the age of 5, and this is most likely because that is when they have the most intimate contact with their mothers. A study found that 85% of children who had one parent with the bacteria also had an infection themselves, whereas just 3% of children tested positive for H. pylori when both their parents were negative. (2)

    The same is true of married or cohabitating couples, and the longer someone lives with an infected person, the more at risk they become. In a study in Germany, 34.9% of women with an infected spouse also had H. pylori, whereas only 14.5% of women with uninfected spouses had the bacteria. (2)

    This is why in areas of high population or overcrowding, or in homes where people are in constant close contact such as by sharing a bed, they are much more likely to pass the bacteria to another person in their household. (2)

    However, families and couples are not the only ones to pass the pathogen through person-to-person contact. Higher H. pylori prevalence has also been found in other environments where people live in close quarters, such as among those living in institutions or hospitals. A study showed that nursing staff, who naturally had closer contact with patients, had more instances of H. pylori infection than non-medical staff in the same hospital. (2)

    Contact with material items

    H. pylori are frequently transmitted orally, with one of the main vectors being saliva. As is the case with many pathogens, that means that things that come in contact with our saliva can also harbor these bacteria and spread them to others. Although it is a less-common source of transmission, H. pylori can be passed via contact with such items as: (2)
      • Bed linens
      • Dental equipment in dental offices
      • Eating or drinking utensils and vessels, such as glasses, plates, and silverware
      • Medical equipment, such as for endoscopies
      • Personal care items, such as toothbrushes

      Avoiding sharing these items, or cleaning them properly between uses will cut down on the bacterial transmission.

      From animals

      Because some animals are susceptible to H. pylori infection, you can also become infected from those animals. This can be through direct contact with the animals themselves, or via the food chain. (1)

      Some researchers suggest that it was the creation of agriculture thousands of years ago, including the cultivation of animals, that was the catalyst that led to humans’ first infections of H. pylori.  (3)

      Many of the animals that are hosts to H. pylori are domestic and/or farm animals. Therefore, they live in close proximity to humans and constantly interact with them. These animals also commonly serve as food sources. (1, 4)

      For example, H. pylori have been found in the milk of cows, goats, and sheep, all of which are used for human food consumption. A study found evidence in sheep of H. pylori DNA with very similar sequences to the H. pylori DNA found in humans, so these animals are suspected of being a major source of transmission to people. (1, 4)

      H. Pylori, for Better and Worse

      Whether H. pylori can be considered a true human parasite in function is a debated topic in the scientific world. Parasites, by definition, live off of us, feed on us, and potentially cause us harm without giving anything back in return. By most accounts, H. pylori fit that bill perfectly and therefore qualify as a parasite. (3)

      However, the ambiguity of the definition comes from the fact that H. pylori very likely do pay us back for the room and board that our bodies provide them. Though often overshadowed by their more unfavorable health consequences, these bacteria give back by frequently offering a protective and beneficial influence on our health.

      Qualifying, therefore, as a “positive parasite” or a “friendly foe,” H. pylori affect our health in both negative and positive ways.

      H is for harmful: The bad side of H. pylori

      H. pylori are thought to have several adverse effects on our health. Because most of the bacteria tend to congregate within our gut, many of the illnesses and diseases associated with H. pylori are gut-related. (3)

      H. pylori may alter the entire gut microbiome, allowing dangerous pathogens to take over. The bacteria can also damage the mucous membrane that lines our stomach. They affect the entire gastrointestinal system, including hindering the absorption of important nutrients. They may even interfere with our metabolism. (3)

        In addition, H. pylori can also affect our other systems and organs, resulting in diseases throughout the body. This is believed to be mainly a result of H. pylori’s tendency to cause severe and chronic inflammation, both local and systemic, which is a factor in virtually all illnesses. (3)   

        The bacteria also influence how our tissues and cells operate, which can lead to dysfunction and disease. For example, they may interfere with our body’s hormones and signaling and may even damage DNA or cause cell mutations. (3)

        H. pylori frequently gather in the oral cavity as well. They cause certain mouth-related conditions, such as periodontitis, which is tied to gum disease and tooth decay or loss. In a study, 81% of patients with periodontitis tested positive for H. pylori in their dental plaque. (3)

          Symptoms of an H. pylori infection

          H. pylori have the potential to cause a range of symptoms and conditions, including: (2, 3)
            • Anemia
            • Biliary tract cancer (cancer of the bile duct and/or gallbladder)
            • Chronic gastritis
            • Dental disease
            • Gastric cancer
            • Gastric/peptic ulcers
            • Heart disease (ischemic)
            • Insulin resistance
            • MALT lymphoma
            • Metabolic issues
            • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
            • Skin disorders
            • Type 2 diabetes
            • Weight gain

            H is for helpful: Beneficial bacteria

            Statistically speaking, H. pylori-induced diseases only affect a small number of people, despite the fact that many, many people will test positive for the bacteria. As much as half the world — and likely considerably more than that — have H. pylori in their bodies. Yet there are far more people who amicably coexist with these peaceful invaders than those who become ill from them. (3)

            Some research suggests that H. pylori may be mutating to survive in altered environments, a process that has possibly led to the development of less-harmful strains. (3)

            And in the best cases, H. pylori go beyond being just innocuous and inoffensive — more than something to be simply tolerated and ignored whenever possible. Instead, these bacteria can be downright advantageous. They may actually do many good things for us.

            In fact, when H. pylori are eliminated, such as through improved sanitary conditions in developing countries, their declining presence seems to correlate with greater instances of allergies, autoimmune diseases, and other health issues. The idea that higher numbers of H. pylori bacteria actually equate with less disease suggests that the organisms have a protective effect on our health. (3)

            One possible reason for this is that every human body can only provide so much space and so many resources, which H. pylori are forced to share with other microbes competing for the same space. It’s survival of the fittest, and H. pylori, being hardy and feisty bacteria, may actually kill off disease-causing pathogens in our bodies if they get in their way. (3)

            They may also have a positive influence on our immune systems, such as by affecting T cells, thus helping our bodies ward off disease on their own. (3)

            In multiple studies, researchers discovered lower instances of certain diseases in people with higher levels of H. pylori in their systems, and conversely, more disease in those with less bacteria. (3)

            Therefore, although the research is often conflicting, studies have found that H. pylori may help fight: (3)

            • Acid reflux
            • Asthma
            • Celiac disease
            • Crohn’s disease
            • Esophageal cancer
            • Diarrhea
            • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
            • Multiple sclerosis
            • Obesity
            • Tuberculosis

            According to some studies, even gastric cancer, long connected with H. pylori infection, may not actually be caused by the bacteria, but rather only intensified and prolonged by them. (3)

            How to Keep H. Pylori on Your Good Side

            H. pylori can have both good and bad effects on our health, and many people live with them their entire lives without ever getting sick.

              Yet despite all the potential benefits of H. pylori, a study conducted in the UK estimated that screening and treating for the bacteria could save more than $7.2 million and 1,300 years of life. (2)

              If you feel that you’re being hurt by these bacteria, you may be wondering what you can do about it.

              Testing for H. Pylori

              Especially if you’re experiencing some of the many possible health issues that H. pylori are known to cause, the first step is knowledge. Find out if these bacteria are at the root of your illness, because knowing what’s making you sick can help you treat it. A practitioner can guide and help you, although there are also some home tests for H. pylori.

              Some of the most common types of tests are: (6, 5)

              • Blood test: In some cases, someone can check your blood for H. pylori antibodies. However, this test has proven unreliable and is increasingly being replaced by other forms of tests.
              • Breath test: H. pylori break down the chemical urea. So, this test involves ingesting a urea pill or drink and then testing your breath afterwards to see if the urea remains in your system or was broken down.
              • Endoscopy: This is an expensive and invasive procedure, during which a biopsy is taken. However, it has many downsides and would most likely only be used as a last resort.
              • Stool test: Yup, the time-honored, classic poop test. H. pylori will come through your digestive tract from your gut and show up in your stool if you have them, and this test will detect them there.

              How to treat H. pylori

              Here are some ways to help rid your body of H. pylori or, at the very least, to reduce or eliminate any negative effects and boost the benefits of the bacteria: (2, 7)

              • Avoid or exercise caution with possible sources of pollution, such as drinking water (drink distilled water) or nearby lakes and rivers.
              • Detox the body to remove the sources of toxicity that cause the H. pylori and other bacteria in your body to become harmful. 
              • Diet can be a major factor in H. pylori infections and related symptoms and diseases. Look to include these foods and nutrients in your diet: carotenoids, folate, fruits and vegetables (peppers are good for fighting H. pylori), green tea, phytochemicals, and vitamin C. Food and minerals to avoid include high-salt foods, iron-rich foods, nickel, processed meats, preserved foods (dried, pickled, salted, or smoked), red meat, and zinc.
              • Limit close contact with infected people, if possible, and practice proper hygiene and sanitation. Also, thoroughly clean personal items, such as toothbrushes or drinking glasses, before sharing them with someone else.
              • Support your gut and immune health to eliminate H. pylori or to provide them with an environment that encourages them to keep you healthy. Probiotics are a good way to achieve this and are often used as an H. pylori treatment.
              • Wash and/or cook fruits and vegetables before eating them. 

                One Helico Bacteria, One Heck of an Impact on Our Health

                With so many people around the world infected with H. pylori, there’s a good chance that you or someone you know could have the bacteria living within your gut as well. Luckily, there are strong odds that you won’t develop any adverse health effects from these microbes, because H. pylori frequently allow their hosts to remain undisturbed or even help protect them from many diseases.

                One of the best ways to keep H. pylori at bay, or to ensure that they remain more positive parasites and not harmful ones, is to keep the body’s foundation healthy and toxin-free. By supporting detox and drainage, you can clear out any harmful pathogens and still reap the benefits of those that are advantageous to your health.

                An H. pylori infection doesn’t have to be a bad thing. By taking steps to support your overall health, you can work toward eliminating — or living a mutually beneficial existence with — these multifaceted bacteria.