An estimated 25 million Americans will develop a peptic ulcer in their lifetimes, according to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control. These sores on the inner lining of the esophagus, stomach or upper small intestine used to be treated by giving patients calcium in the form of milk and antacid pills containing calcium carbonate. But researchers have have found that calcium actually makes many ulcers worse and have replaced calcium treatment with other medicines and surgery.
Before the 20th century, peptic ulcers were hard to diagnose, as there was no way to see them until someone had died and an autopsy was performed. With the development of radiology techniques in the late 19th century, patients' digestive tracts could be photographed, allowing physicians to diagnose the illness and try to treat it. Because gastric acid in the stomach causes food to break down so that the nutrients can be absorbed, physicians concluded that abnormally high levels of gastric acid produced by stress and spicy foods or drinks burned holes in the digestive system lining, causing ulcers.
Calcium is a mineral that your body needs to keep your bones and teeth strong. Calcium products appeared to soothe ulcer pain, so doctors encouraged patients to drink milk and take calcium carbonate antacids. But physicians eventually realized that using calcium as an ulcer treatment was not a good idea. Calcium stimulates the stomach to produce more acid and digestive juices, which worsens ulcers. Peptic ulcer patients who ingested large amounts of milk and calcium carbonate sometimes suffered kidney damage from calcium deposits, an illness called milk-alkali syndrome.
In 1982, scientists J. Robin Warren and Barry Marshall discovered that a bacteria, helicobacter pylori, also known as H. pylori, was the cause of most peptic ulcers. Scientists found that emotional stress, which can cause excessive stomach-acid production, spicy and irritating foods and drinks, such as alcohol, and smoking all make ulcers worse. But they're not the primary cause of peptic ulcers. Today, patients are given antibiotics to kill H. pylori bacteria and proton-pump inhibitor pills to reduce the amount of acid in the stomach so that the ulcer can heal, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Patients are sent for surgery when severe ulcers create stomach wall holes or cause heavy bleeding.
If you are experiencing heartburn, stomach pain, nausea and vomiting between meals or at night, make an appointment with your doctor and get tested for a peptic ulcer. If you are diagnosed with a peptic ulcer, ask your doctor if you should cut back on drinking milk and stop taking calcium carbonate antacids and supplements. If milk and calcium carbonate supplements are your primary calcium sources, ask your physician to refer you to a dietitian who can advise you on how to increase other sources of calcium in your diet, such as sardines, kale and broccoli, which will not trigger stomach acid production in the same way that milk and calcium carbonate do.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:Helicobacter Pylori and Peptic Ulcer Disease
- Office of Dietary Supplements: Calcium
- Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England; A Hundred Years of Gastric Surgery"; Sir Heneage Ogilvie, M.D.; June 1947
- Cleveland Clinic: Peptic Ulcer Disease
- MedLinePlus: Milk-alkali Syndrome
- Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology; Helicobacter Pylori and Ulcers; Nancy A. Lynch, Ph.D.