Parents Can Infect Their Children with H. pylori
Mastic May Support Normal Gastrointestinal Function
With the gift of life can come an infection that can last (but shorten) a lifetime
By Aaron W. Jensen, Ph.D.
As a parent, you want to give your child every advantage in life. A good education, self-confidence, a carefree childhood, and exposure to exciting ideas and new opportunities are all goals we strive to pass on to our progeny. But one thing you don't want them to be exposed to is pernicious bacteria that may threaten their well-being.
Yet it is clear that being close to your children can cause them to become infected with more than just your cheerful enthusiasm for life. That's right - bacterial (and other) infections in children may increase because of close parent-child relationships.
We all know that many germs are transmitted by close personal contact. Who among us doesn't go out of his or her way to avoid a colleague or friend with a cold or flu in an effort to reduce our own personal risk of infection? And if you share living conditions and common household items with an infected individual, the risk of picking up harmful bacteria will increase even more dramatically.
H. pylori Is Stealthy and Persistent
So it isn't surprising that researchers in Germany have determined that children are much more likely to become infected with a particular bacterium, Helicobacter pylori, if their parents are infected.1 But infection with this bacterium isn't like catching the common cold. For one thing, you don't notice any immediate consequences of H. pyloriinfection; you may even go for many years without noticeable symptoms. The infection can have a lasting impact, however, because if left untreated, it increases your risk of digestive ailments and diseases later in life.
If you can avoid passing this germ on to your children, they will thank you for it (well, maybe not - you know kids), and you can rest easier at night.
H. pylori: A Clever, Bad Bug
Unlike most bacteria, H. pylori doesn't mind residing in the harshly acidic "soup" found in the human stomach - an environment that kills most bacteria. H. pylori can counteract the acidic conditions in the stomach by making ammonia, an alkaline compound that neutralizes acid. As a result, the bacteria actually proliferate in the stomach and burrow into its lining to establish destructive colonies. Once established in their snug new home, they are there to stay unless steps are taken to eradicate them.
But why should you worry if your stomach becomes infected with H. pylori? There are plenty of reasons, including gastritis (painful inflammation of the stomach lining), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), ulcers, and stomach cancer. Infection with H. pylori increases the risk for all these diseases. Consider, for example, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claims that H. pylori infection causes over 90% of all duodenal ulcers and perhaps as many as 80% of all gastric ulcers.2(Together, duodenal and gastric ulcers are called peptic ulcers.)
H. pylori is a major cause of gastritis in both children and adults. It also increases the risk of recurring GERD - more commonly known as heartburn - and it increases the risk of developing gastric cancer
How You Get H. pylori, & How to Get Rid of It
H. pylori is contracted through oral infection. This means that it can be acquired through personal contact (such as kissing), through sharing common items (such as eating utensils or drinking cups), and through consumption of contaminated food items (such as water, meat, or vegetables). Of these routes of infection, person-to-person transmission is by far the most common. If you want to avoid H. pylori infection, good personal hygiene and safe food preparation methods are the best primary defense.
But once you are infected, is there any way to get rid of H. pylori? Fortunately, there is. One method is rather involved and expensive, while the other is simple and inexpensive. The more complicated (and unpleasant) approach is called "triple drug therapy" because it employs three different drugs: two are antibiotics (usually amoxicillin and clarithromycin), and they're teamed up with a third, a proton pump inhibitor such as omeprazole (Prilosec®) or lansoprazole (Prevacid®) to reduce stomach acid. These drugs must be taken, usually twice daily, for a period of 7 to 14 days and may result in unpleasant side effects in many people.
Mastic Is a Natural H. pylori Killer
A simpler approach is to employ mastic, a safe, natural herbal remedy derived from the gum resin of the mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus). Mastic has been used in Mediterranean countries for many centuries to relieve gastrointestinal distress in both adults and children, and recent research suggests that it soothes a distressed gastrointestinal system by eradicating H. pylori.3 That's right - mastic is a natural antibiotic. Studies in England have shown that mastic can kill up to 99.9% of H. pylori in an overnight incubation in the laboratory. And since a vaccination is not yet available for H. pylori (see the sidebar for an update on this topic), mastic is an important nonpharmacological alternative for many people.
Researchers in Sweden may be on to something big. They have discovered that the H. pylori bacterium has two unique proteins on its surface that allow it to adhere tightly to cells in the lining of the stomach.1 These proteins play a dual role in the success of H. pylori infection: at the same time that they facilitate attachment to the stomach cells, they also inhibit the infected cells from alerting the body's immune system. And with no immune-system response to combat the infection, H. pylori evades detection and firmly establishes itself in the stomach.
But the researchers are hopeful that they can exploit these same two proteins in developing a vaccine for H. pylori. This approach is currently being tested in mice. Even if the mouse studies are successful, however, it could be as much as 6-8 years before a vaccine is available for humans.
Infected Parents Increase the Risk of Infected Children
Researchers in Germany set out to determine whether children who lived with H. pylori-infected parents were at increased risk of becoming infected with the same bacteria.1They surveyed 305 children between the ages of 5 and 7 over a 6-month period in the southern German town of Ulm (where Einstein was born) and found that 10.2% of them tested positive for H. pylori.
Mastic relieves gastrointestinal
distress in both adults and
children. It soothes a distressed
gastrointestinal system by
eradicating H. pylori.
The researchers also tested the children's parents for H. pylori and found that 36.5% of the mothers and 22.5% of the fathers were infected. When parent-child pairs were compared, the results showed a clear increase in risk for child infection when the parents were infected. For example, the rate of infection in children was only 5.1% if the mother tested negative for H. pylori, but 17.3% if she tested positive. Similarly, the rate of infection was 6.8% in children when the father tested negative, but 19.1% if he tested positive.
We Don't Like These Odds
Statistical analysis of the data showed that children of infected mothers were 3.9 times more likely to be infected than children of uninfected mothers. A similar correlation, though not as strong, was observed when fathers were infected: the odds that children of positive fathers would also be infected were 2.0. These values are called odds ratiosand are a statistical measure that reflect the increased odds that a behavior (in this case an infected parent) will increase the likelihood of H. pylori infection in the children. Clearly, any child with an H. pylori-positive parent has an increased risk of becoming infected with this destructive, disease-causing bacterium.
The results also suggest that children are much more likely to become infected from their mothers than from their fathers, presumably because mothers typically have more extensive and more intimate contact with children during infancy and early childhood. This conclusion is consistent with data from China, where researchers found that the odds of becoming infected with H. pylori from a mother were three times greater than from a father.4
H. pylori Gets Them Young, and Hangs On
Children are especially susceptible to H. pylori infection. In fact, a study published in The Lancet suggests that children in the 4-6-year age group suffer the greatest risk of H. pylori infection.5 They became infected at a rate of 2.1% per year, while children in the 7-9-year age group became infected at a rate of 1.5% per year. The infection rate in young adults (21-23 years of age) was relatively low, 0.3% per year. These data demonstrate that young children are at the greatest risk of H. pylori infection.
The study further showed that, once an H. pylori infection takes hold, it is likely to persist for the long term unless it's eradicated. For example, although new infections occurred at only 0.3% per year in the 21-23-year age group, a total of 24.5% of this age group was infected with H. pylori. This shows that the majority of these people were infected at an earlier age and retained their infection throughout the study period. Indeed, the data show that, once the subjects became infected at an earlier age, 84% of them maintained their infection until they became young adults.
Say Good-Bye to H. pylori
The important things to remember about H. pylori infection are that: (1) it can lead eventually to ulcers or even stomach cancer, and (2) it's relatively easy to get rid of. Eradicating the infection is possible with mastic. It kills H. pylori, as well as other bacteria in the gut that may cause gastrointestinal problems, such as Escherichia coliand Staphylococcus aureus. Furthermore, researchers have demonstrated that a small amount of mastic - 1 gram per day for two weeks - alleviates the symptoms of peptic ulcers by causing the tissue to heal. More difficult cases can be treated with 2 grams per day for a month, and reinfection can usually be prevented with a maintenance amount of 0.5 gram per day.
Mastic has traditionally been used by Mediterranean peoples as a chewing gum, among other things. Now comes news that chewing gum can do more for you than you might have thought - if you've just had colon surgery. A study by Japanese researchers shows that chewing gum seems to help patients recover more quickly after such surgery.1 (The gum doesn't have to be mastic - any gum will do.)
The researchers suggest that the chewing action stimulates digestive reflexes and triggers the release of digestive juices that may get the digestive tract back on track at an accelerated pace. In essence, chewing "primes" the digestive system. In the study in question, it produced a functional colon as much as 2.7 days sooner than in patients who didn't chew gum.
In addition, researchers in Turkey have demonstrated that chewing sugarless gum or natural mastic gum reduces the growth of bacteria in the mouth.2 Good oral hygiene of this sort not only reduces the risk of periodontal disease and gingivitis, it may also reduce the risk of stomach infections with H. pylori.
A small amount of mastic
alleviates the symptoms of
peptic ulcers by causing the
tissue to heal.
You should be aware that, because H. pylori infection is so rampant (current estimates suggest that one-half to two-thirds of the world's population is infected), reinfection with this bacterium over time is a distinct possibility. Continued vigilance is thus an important part of staying H. pylori-free. And if you stay free of this destructive bacterium, chances are your children will too. Keep H. pylori out of the family!
- Rothenbacher K, Winkler M, Gonser T, Adler G, Brenner H. Role of infected parents in transmission of Helicobacter pylori to their children. Ped Infect Dis J2002;21:674-9.
- CDC. Helicobacter pylori: Fact Sheet for Health Care Providers. 1998.
- Huwez FU, Thirlwell D, Cockayne A, Ala'Aldeen DAA. Mastic gum kills Helicobacter pylori. N Engl J Med 1998;339:1946.
- Ma JL, You WC, Gail MH, et al. Helicobacter pylori infection and mode of transmission in a population at high risk of stomach cancer. Int J Epidemiol1998;27:570-3.
- Malaty HM, El-Kasabany A, Graham DY, et al. Age at acquisition of Helicobacter pylori infection: a follow-up study from infancy to adulthood. Lancet2002;359:931-5.
Dr. Jensen is a cell biologist who has conducted research in England, Germany, and the United States. He has taught college courses in biology and nutrition and has written extensively on medical and scientific topics.