Over 25 million Americans will suffer from a peptic ulcer at some point during their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A peptic ulcer, also known as a stomach ulcer, is a sore or hole in the lining of the stomach or duodenum (the first part of the small intestine). People of any age can get an ulcer and both women and men can suffer from it.
Ulcers are a common reason behind chronic stomach pain and it can affect appetite and cause nausea, vomiting or bleeding into the digestive tract.
An imbalance of digestive juices in the stomach and intestines can cause ulcers to form.
While there is no single cause for this imbalance of digestive juices, there are several things that increase your chance of developing an ulcer over time.
Here are the top 10 common causes that lead to peptic ulcers.
1. Helicobacter Pylori Bacterial Infection
An infection that develops from Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacteria is one of most common causes of peptic ulcers. It’s not clear how an H. pylori infection spreads, but it is believed that it may be transmitted from person to person through close contact. H. pylori bacteria may also enter the body through food and water.
This type of bacteria commonly live in the mucous layer that covers and protects tissues that line the stomach and small intestine. They can survive the acidic environment that occurs during the digestion process.
An overgrowth of these bacteria causes irritation in the stomach lining and weakens the protective coating. This can further lead to inflammation and infection, ultimately leading to an ulcer.
However, people who may get infected with H. pylori will not always develop ulcers. Only a few people infected with H. pylori will suffer from an ulcer in the coming days.
2. Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs
Taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, commonly known as NSAIDs, is another common cause of ulcers.
Both over-the-counter and prescription NSAIDs can irritate or inflame the lining of your stomach and small intestine, ultimately leading to an ulcer.
As prescribed NSAIDs are often taken for weeks or months at a time, they cause more damage to the digestive tract lining as compared to over-the-counter NSAIDs taken for short periods of time.
In fact, over-the-counter NSAIDs come with a warning label stating that NSAIDs can injure the stomach lining. Extended use can cause bleeding and ulceration.
Some of the NSAIDs that are harmful for the digestive system are ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB and others) and naproxen sodium (Aleve, Anaprox and others).
3. Alcoholic Beverages
While moderate drinking will not cause an ulcer, experts consider heavy drinking to be a risk factor for it.
In fact, moderate drinking will help protect the stomach against H. pylori, the bacteria that causes most ulcers. However, drinking in excess can irritate the stomach lining, leading to inflammation.
Any kind of inflammation in the stomach increases the risk of developing an ulcer. It can also keep existing ulcers from healing.
Heavy drinking also increases the acidity level in the stomach, making you more vulnerable to ulcers.
A 2000 study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology reports that fermented and non-distilled alcoholic beverages increase gastric levels and acid secretion in the stomach.
Along with alcohol, smoking is another factor that can increase your risk of developing peptic ulcers. Plus, it tends to make the treatment less effective.
4. Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome
One of the rare causes of peptic ulcers is Zollinger-Ellison syndrome.
It is a rare condition in which one or more tumors form in your pancreas or the upper part of your small intestine, also known as the duodenum.
These tumors secrete excess amounts of the hormone gastrin, resulting in the stomach making too much acid and damaging the lining. The excess acid then leads to peptic ulcers, as well as to diarrhea and other symptoms.
It is estimated that 90 to 95 percent of people with Zollinger-Ellison syndrome will develop severe or recurring peptic ulcers.
5. Too Much Salt
High salt intake is another leading cause of stomach ulcers.
In fact, a high-salt diet may induce gene activity in H. pylori that makes it more virulent. An infection from H. pylori bacteria is one of the key reasons behind ulcers.
A 2013 study published in Infection and Immunity reports that high dietary salt intake causes genetic changes in H. pylori and makes it more powerful.
If you already have an ulcer, high salt intake will aggravate the present symptoms. This is why people suffering from an ulcer are advised to eat a low-salt diet to avoid further irritation.
6. Excess Stress
While there is no scientific proof that links stress –emotional or mental – to ulcers, experts believe that stress increases the likelihood of suffering from a stomach ulcer.
Stress, especially prolonged stress, can have an effect on stomach acid production. It can trigger an increased release of stomach acid and raise inflammation.
While stress alone can cause ulcers in some cases, most often it is stress along with a bacterial infection or use of anti-inflammatory drugs that leads to ulcers.
Stress may even prevent existing ulcers from healing.
7. Family History
Last but not the least, a personal or family history of ulcers is another common risk factor for stomach ulcers.
Having a family history of most medical conditions usually increases your chances of developing those same conditions and ulcers are not an exception.
In fact, most people who suffer from ulcers have family members who suffered from the same condition. However, experts are not sure why this happens since ulcers are not a genetic disease.
Hypercalcemia, which means an overproduction of calcium, is another cause of ulcers. When one suffers from hypercalcemia, the blood contains an above-normal level of calcium.
Prolonged hypercalcemia tends to cause high gastrin levels, which in turn may contribute to peptic ulcer disease.
It may even lead to pancreatitis or calcium deposits in soft tissue.
If your blood’s calcium level is greater than approximately 15 mg/dL, it is considered a medical emergency and must be treated aggressively.
9. High Caffeine Intake
High caffeine intake is another contributing factor in the development of ulcers. Caffeine increases the production of stomach acid, which makes you more vulnerable to suffering from an ulcer.
Caffeine tends to speed up the process of gastric emptying, which leads to high acid content in the stomach. This acid passes into the small intestine more rapidly than normal.
This not only increases the risk of developing an ulcer but also worsens symptoms of those with an existing ulcer.
10. Low Levels of Melatonin
Another cause of ulcers is low levels of melatonin. Low lighting triggers melatonin production in the pineal gland.
However, due to lifestyle changes like working late at night, use of artificial lighting and so on can make the body produce less melatonin than what is necessary.
A reduction in melatonin production can trigger several health problems, such as ulcers.
In fact, even a small increase in melatonin levels can have a dramatic effect in both healing and preventing stress-induced ulcers.