The stomach houses a worrying guest

Half of the world’s population has H. pylori, a type of bacteria that can affect digestion. So why isn’t the problem more widespread? (Cat O’Neil/The New York Times)

I have never known what it means to have normal digestion and it is much more difficult when your profession is centered around eating.

I’m a food reporter, so I usually dine out several times a week. Since I’ve been scouring restaurants across America for The New York Times Fall Favorites list for the past few months, back-to-back dinners have been the norm. My stomach problems (constipation, acid reflux, diarrhea, you name it) are lifelong, but this job has made them worse.

I know I know. Work eating in restaurants? How sad your life must be! And I admit that sometimes I feel good after a meal in a restaurant. I actually feel great, but more and more often I find myself pinned to the couch for hours with a stomach ache.

When I was a teenager, I told my GP about my digestive problems and he told me I had acid reflux. I started keeping antacid pills in each of my bags, but these only offered temporary relief. I was tested for food allergies, but nothing came back.

A few months ago, when I started looking for restaurants, I was in pain almost every night. My partner urged me to see a gastroenterologist. It turns out that a type of bacteria that looks almost like a spiral mass under the microscope was wreaking havoc on the lining of my stomach. The bacterium is called Helicobacter pylori, H. pylori for short, and nearly half the world’s population has it.

H. pylori has evolved in human microbiomes for at least 100,000 years. In 2005, it became known when Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren, Australian doctors, received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering the relationship between this bacterium and peptic ulcers.

Many people have H. pylori in their stomachs without negative consequences, but in some cases it can penetrate the mucosal layer of the stomach and cause a series of problems, from stomach inflammation to ulcers and stomach cancer, said Nina Salama, a microbiologist at the Center Oncologist Fred Hutchinson of Seattle.

Half of the world's population has H. pylori, a type of bacteria that can affect digestion. So why isn't the problem more widespread? (Cat O'Neil/The New York Times)

Half of the world’s population has H. pylori, a type of bacteria that can affect digestion. So why isn’t the problem more widespread? (Cat O’Neil/The New York Times)

Many people who have H. pylori may have contracted it during early childhood through contact, such as sharing food or breathing in aerosols released when someone vomits, Salama explained. It can also be spread through food that has not been washed or cooked safely, or through drinking water contaminated with the bacteria.

H. pylori is more common in certain parts of the world, such as Africa and South Asia.

As hygiene standards have improved in the United States, H. pylori has become less common in the country. Salama said some studies suggest symptoms can be controlled with dietary changes, such as eating plenty of fruit and vegetables or reducing salt intake. There is also a treatment: a high dose of antibiotics and acid inhibitors that are administered for several days.

Before I tested positive for H. pylori, I had never heard of this bacteria. H. pylori doesn’t get the same public attention as irritable bowel syndrome, the digestive problem currently all the rage on TikTok among users who identify as “hot girls with IBS.” In the media, this disease is not talked about as much as celiac disease, a chronic disorder that makes people sensitive to gluten.

However, once I started talking about my personal difficulties, I found other people with jobs related to the food industry who had tested positive for this bacteria.

In 2019, Luisa Weiss, an American cookbook author living in Berlin, discovered that she had H. pylori. After years of inflammation and irregular bowel movements, the positive test “was like a release,” she said.

Weiss added that people don’t talk enough about these types of health issues because they find it embarrassing.

“And that’s why they don’t realize that people are in danger,” he said.

Weiss took antibiotics, but was also diagnosed with celiac disease. Although his stomach problems have improved, he is very careful about what he eats. When he makes recipes, he asks other people to help him taste the food and avoids spicy dishes in restaurants.

Aileen Corrieri stopped writing her food blog, Hungry Aileen, a few years ago when she found out she had H. pylori. Like Weiss, even after the treatment, she was afraid to go back to her old diet.

“Now I spend a lot of time on TikTok and YouTube watching cooking videos,” he said, “just to live through the images.”

Some studies suggest that H. pylori may be beneficial for the esophagus or offer protection against asthma, but Marshall believes that people who have digestive problems and test positive for H. pylori should opt for antibiotics.

I finished my course of antibiotics a month ago. It was a painful 10 days where I threw up while working out, spent a whole day nauseous, and had a constant bitter metallic taste in my mouth. In a few days, I’ll see my doctor again to find out if the bacteria is gone.

Since then I have eaten in a few restaurants, but it is difficult to know if my situation has changed; however, I have realized how much I had normalized feeling uncomfortable.

I doubt my stomach pains will go away completely, but if they come back with more intensity, maybe next time I won’t wait 30 years to go to the doctor.

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The stomach houses a worrying guest