Contrary to popular belief, bacterial organisms are our friends--most of the time. The human body is filled with bacterial agents and depends on them for survival. Many digestive problems may actually be caused by a lack of these organisms in the system. And while some, less friendly, agents can cause considerable discomfort, these are few and far between.
Scientists estimate that as many as 500 to 1,000 species of bacteria live in the human body. These are single-celled bodies, which are microscopic in size. Bacterial organisms are part of what is called the human flora. Most of them are necessary for the body to function properly. They don't require oxygen to survive, but rather thrive in warm, moist environments. Those that result in illness and disease are considered pathogenic, and represent a small percentage of the total number. Areas of the body where bacterial flora reside are the skin, the mouth, the intestines and the stomach.
The stomach's role in digestion is an active one. In order to break down all the foods we eat, a high acid concentration is necessary. Hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes, called peptidases, do most of the work when food passes through. To protect itself from the high acid content, the stomach lining secretes a thick mucous substance on a regular basis. These chemical processes in the stomach make for a fairly inhospitable environment for most organisms. Any bacteria that's able to survive in the stomach is either meant to be there, or has figured out a way to protect itself. Bacteria enter the stomach through the food we eat, water, our skin, air, or come up from the digestive track.
There are some stomach bacteria that are harmful, and can lead to more advanced illnesses. One of the more common bacteria is the Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). These are spiral-shaped, and appear in 20 percent of people under 40 years old. This number increases to 50 percent for people over the age of 60. These organisms make their way inside the protective mucous layer that coats the stomach walls, which is how they remain protected from stomach acids. The bacteria are then able to produce urease enzymes that further reduce the acid level within the stomach. H. pylori bacteria are known to cause inflammation of the stomach walls, and in some cases, infection. If left untreated, dyspepsia, ulcers and gastritis can develop. Not everyone who has the h. pylori bacteria will contract these conditions. A person's overall health condition, the type of h.pylori, and other factors determine the effects of this organism in the system. Other pathogenic types include salmonelle enteritis, shigella enteritis and e. coli enteritis.
Stomach bacteria that work to promote digestive heath and functioning are called beneficial organisms. They help with synthesizing vitamins and minerals into materials the body can use. Through fermentation, these bacteria also help with the breakdown of complex carbohydrates. They exist in colonies, and are able to stunt the growth of most pathogenic organisms that invade the system. Their chemical interactions within the stomach help to maintain the ph levels needed within this environment. Beneficial bacteria types include lactobacilli, veillonella and bifidobacteria. Certain health supplements, called probiotics, are actually derivatives of beneficial bacterial agents. Probiotics are used to treat lactose intolerance, bouts of diarrhea, and gastrointestinal infections.
Stomach problems like heartburn, indigestion, nausea, vomiting, abdominal swelling and diarrhea are usually caused by the presence of unfriendly stomach bacteria, or a short supply of beneficial flora within the digestive tract. In the case of heartburn and indigestion, probiotic supplements, or foods containing yogurt cultures, may help alleviate symptoms. Nausea, vomiting, abdominal swelling and diarrhea are typically signs that an invader organism has entered the system. This can be due to the strength of the bacteria or to a shortage of beneficial flora. Antibiotics are used to treat pathogenic bacteria depending on the severity of the symptoms. In cases where symptoms persist, it's always best to seek medical attention.