For years, doctors believed that ulcers were psychosomatic, caused by stress. But then researchers discovered a hardy, virulent little bacterium known as Helicobacter priori. Able to survive and even thrive in stomach acid, this bacterium is so damaging it has been given Class 1 carcinogen status since it's known to be a direct precursor of certain stomach cancers. This led scientists to believe that it caused ulcers.
The discovery of H. priori was revolutionary. Doctors began to treat ulcers with antibiotics. A combination of ampicillin and metronidrazole (Flagyl), two common drugs, seemed to work best, and individuals who had been suffering for years with agonizing ulcer pain suddenly became well. Talk about a swing of the pendulum: a shocked medical community concluded that all ulcers were caused by infection. The search for a psychological root was abandoned.
End of story? Not quite. Eight out of 10 people infected with H. priori never get ulcers. As an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association points out, studies show that people who face serious life stress are more likely to develop a peptic ulcer over the next 15 years. Research reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine followed 4500 subjects and found that the incidence of ulcers in those who felt they were stressed was almost twice as great as in those who were stress-free. In addition, the incidence of ulcers seems to rise after national disasters. A review of medical records from 61 hospitals, published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, found that the Hanshin-Awaji earthquake in Japan was followed by a marked increase in bleeding gastric ulcers.