This mysterious infection could be behind your gut problems

Feel sick, bloated and ridiculously full after eating? This common bacterial infection could be to blame.

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Up until the age of about 20, I was the type of girl who could (and did) eat everything. I was renowned for eating bacon and cream cheese sandwiches or chicken nuggets with sour cream at school for lunch (terrible, I know). I would chug large milkshakes and eat half a tub of Connoisseur salted caramel ice-cream without giving it a second thought.

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Then, I went on a trip to the Philippines with my family. A chicken roll from their equivalent of KFC led to a rather close encounter with the toilet bowl in my hotel room. I felt ‘off’ for days, but never considered it would be anything more than a temporary food bug. But somewhere around that time, my body decided it hated dairy and gluten (my two favourite things).

Suddenly, my daily peanut butter on toast and cow’s milk latte left me rushing to the bathroom within minutes. It was strange and upsetting, but I eventually accepted that soy milk and (slightly) less wheat was my new way of life. I knew it wasn’t Coeliac disease as I wasn’t experiencing severe pain, it was just that those foods no longer agreed with me.

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Fast forward four years, I started experiencing sharp chest pains. It felt like someone was stabbing me in the chest, but it would only last for a few seconds. At first, I worried there was something wrong with my heart. But it started happening on the right side too, so I put it down to muscle strain from lifting weights. However, it continued happening for a few months and eventually, my well-meaning boyfriend forced me to see a doctor.

It was just as well he did, as I learned something that completely changed the way I thought about my gut health problems. I explained the stabbing sensation and the doctor told me it sounded like acid reflux. He asked me if I experienced bloating or had any food intolerances and I nodded enthusiastically. He sent me off for some blood tests and a few days later, I returned for the results.

“You tested negative for gluten or dairy sensitivity,” he said matter-of-factly. “But you have a bacterial infection called Helicobacter Pylori.” I had never heard of it before, but an image of an evil-looking cartoon germ wearing one of those spinning top hats immediately popped into my mind. A little Google research indicated that the infection is extremely common, affecting around one third of the Australian population. So what is this mysterious condition, exactly?

What is Helicobacter Pylori?

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Also known as H Pylori, Helicobacter Pylori is a spiral-shaped bacterium that infects the stomach. The infection is extremely common, as it’s present in more than 30% of the world’s population. While many people don’t experience any symptoms, the bacteria can change the environment around them and neutralise stomach acid to survive. If untreated, this can lead to stomach problems like peptic ulcers or an inflammatory condition called gastritis.

What are the causes?

Scientists believe that H Pylori can be spread from mouth to mouth, through contact with contaminated food or water, or from faeces to mouth (yuck!). Children are more likely to develop the infection and it’s more common in developing countries. For me, my gut (pardon the pun) tells me that the food poisoning in the Philippines was the culprit.

What are the signs and symptoms?

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The signs of H Pylori are similar to those of various other conditions, like IBS, Crohn’s or even more serious diseases like ovarian cancer. They include:

  • Excessive burping
  • Pain in the upper abdomen
  • Feeling bloated
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Lack of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Foul breath
  • Acid reflux
  • Excessive gas
  • Feeling full after a small amount of food

H Pylori is also the most common cause of peptic ulcers, and it increases your risk of stomach cancer.

Testing and treatment

Testing for H Pylori can be done by your GP through either a blood, breath, or stool test, or an endoscopy. For people who have the infection but don’t experience any symptoms, there may be no need for treatment.

However, for those with symptoms, treatment is usually two different antibiotics combined with a drug to reduce stomach acid. The course of medication normally takes a week and if taken correctly, it can clear the infection in one round. However, up to 20% of sufferers aren’t cured first go, so require multiple rounds of antibiotics.

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The trickiest thing about H Pylori is the fact that the antibodies stay in your system for a few months, even if you’re no longer infected. A stool test later down the track will confirm whether you still have it, but a blood test will always remain positive.

For those who prefer to avoid antibiotics, natural remedies like probiotics, matula tea and broccoli sprouts have proven successful for some people. As for me, I completed a course of antibiotics a few months ago, but missed one dose (whoops). However, I do feel that my symptoms have improved, which could also be down to the gut health supplements I’ve been taking. I guess only time and another test will tell.

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Emma Norris
A true believer in balance, Emma is just as passionate about pizza as she is about pull-ups. When she’s not writing, she loves strength training, visiting new cafes and trying out new fitness classes. Having lived in Ireland and Canada, Emma was bitten by the travel bug at a young age. She loves nothing more than visiting new destinations and experiencing different cultures. Emma grew up (and currently lives) near the beautiful Coogee Beach and is happiest when she’s near a body of water. She started her career in magazines and has recently made the exciting transition to the digital world.