Stomach Ulcers: A Pain in My Gut
In 1988, I was a typical junior in college. I stayed up late cramming and drank far too much coffee. But I started noticing side effects to this lifestyle that went beyond the typical exhaustion and over-caffeinated jitters. I began suffering from intense, burning pain in my stomach. I felt like the middle of my chest was on fire, a sensation that couldn’t just be acid reflux. I’d eat bread, crackers—anything I thought would extinguish the flame. (Then, naturally, I gained 10 pounds.) I grew more and more miserable, and finally decided to see a doctor. Unfortunately, my physician had trouble diagnosing me until my father, a general practitioner, suggested that perhaps I had a stomach ulcer (also known as a peptic ulcer).
A stomach ulcer is an open sore that forms when stomach acid destroys sensitive tissue in the stomach wall. To prevent this, the stomach lining has defenses, including a thick layer of mucus. But if bacteria or other irritants increase the amount of acid or damage the stomach’s defenses, this may cause an ulcer.
Today, doctors are more equipped to diagnose a peptic ulcer than they were in 1988. I was never officially diagnosed, but typically a doctor may recommend a few tests to determine whether the bacterium H. pylori is present in the body. H. pylori commonly lives within the layer of mucus protecting the stomach wall and is mostly harmless. But sometimes, it can inflame the lining of the stomach and produce an ulcer. A blood test, a stool test, or a breath test may detect the presence of H. pylori. An endoscopy can also determine if H. pylori is causing the problem; if your doctor finds an ulcer by using the scope, he or she may remove small tissue samples to find H. pylori.
So I had an ulcer. And what makes ulcer symptoms worse? Food or beverages like spicy foods, highly seasoned foods, black and red pepper, cocoa, chocolate, peppermint, white sugar, citrus, pineapple, tomatoes, onions, garlic pickles, tea, soda, citrus—and yes, coffee.
I was in excruciating pain, but I couldn’t fathom giving up my daily caffeine boost. I tried everything else I could think of to calm the symptoms; I took antacids, I changed my diet, I ate more bread, and I slowly became more aware of what I was ingesting. Finally, I narrowed the culprit down to my beloved coffee. I stopped drinking it, and my pain faded away. I didn’t drink coffee for 10 years after that.
The temptation to drink coffee again hit me when I first met my husband. I watched him pour each delicious cup and convinced myself that I could handle just a little. At first, I felt okay—but then another ulcer began to rage. I had to put the coffee away in order to end the horrific burning in my stomach. Slowly, the ulcer subsided, with the additional help of medication.
A few years later, I became pregnant, and the symptoms started again—this time, without any coffee-related incidents. I don’t know what exactly brought on that flare-up; maybe it was mental stress, physical stress, or my changing body. But I do know it was awful. That time, I relied on medication to calm the pain. It takes a few weeks for the symptoms to subside, but it’s just one of those things I had to go through to get better.
I haven’t had a flare-up in 10 years, thanks to avoiding high-acid foods and drinks. I exercise regularly and listen closely to my body. I feel as good as I did 20 years ago.
Julie is the mother of three children and lives outside Chicago with her husband, Richard.