It has long been known that it is a bacteria, Helicobacter pylori, that is the major culprit behind stomach ulcers. Doctors usually consider antibiotics to be the primary therapy against H. pylori infection, which is a problem because antibiotics are often overused and they deplete the body of its naturally occurring good bacteria which are so essential to immune and digestive health.
However, this infection now affects approximately six percent of the world population and is also a primary cause of stomach cancer. So it's been very bad news that the bacteria is growing increasingly resistant to antibiotics.
A new study led by scientists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology demonstrates that the amino acid glutamine, found in many foods as well as in dietary supplements, may prove beneficial in offsetting gastric damage caused by H. pylori infection. Reported in the May 2009 issue of The Journal of Nutrition, the findings offer the possibility of an alternative to antibiotics for the treatment of stomach ulcers.
“Our findings suggest that extra glutamine in the diet could protect against gastric damage caused by H. pylori,” says senior author Susan Hagen, PhD, of Harvard Medical School. “Gastric damage develops when the bacteria weakens the stomach’s protective mucous coating, damages cells and elicits a robust immune response that is ineffective at ridding the infection.” Eventually, she notes, years of infection result in a combination of persistent gastritis, cell damage and an environment conducive to cancer development.
Glutamine is a nonessential amino acid naturally found in certain foods, including beef, chicken, fish eggs, dairy products and some fruits and vegetables. It is seen in wide use in the dietary supplement industry, and frequently used by bodybuilders to build muscle mass.
Hagen and her coauthors had previously shown that glutamine protects against cell death from H. pylori-produced ammonia. “Our work demonstrated that the damaging effects of ammonia on gastric cells could be reversed completely by the administration of L-glutamine,” explains Hagen. “The amino acid stimulated ammonia detoxification in the stomach – as it does in the liver – so that the effective concentration of ammonia was reduced, thereby blocking cell damage.”
This research team did extensive experimentation in mice that were fed the L-glutamine diet; these animals exhibited lower levels of inflammation than did the mice that received the standard control diet.
“Because many of the stomach pathologies during H. pylori infection [including cancer progression] are linked to high levels of inflammation, this result provides us with preliminary evidence that glutamine supplementation may be an alternative therapy for reducing the severity of infection,” explains Hagen, adding that studies in human subjects will be the next step to determine the relevance of this finding in the clinical setting.
“H. pylori bacteria infect more than half of the world’s population and were recently identified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organization,” she adds. “Approximately 5.5 percent of the entire global cancer burden is attributed to H. pylori infection and, worldwide, over 900,000 new cases of gastric cancer develop each year. The possibility that an inexpensive, easy-to-use treatment could be used to modify the damaging effects of H. pylori infection warrants further study in clinical trials.”