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That gnawing pain in the stomach that sometimes gets better with food and other times gets worse may be from your stomach’s actually digesting itself! This is an ulcer, a condition that affects five million people in the United States today. When the cells protecting the stomach wall from digestive acids fail to work properly, the acids begin to burn away the stomach wall. Ulcers can occur in the stomach or just below the stomach in the part of the small intestine called the duodenum. The symptoms of ulcers vary depending on location but generally include abdominal pain, bloating, fullness, excessive salivation, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, and weight loss. You can tell where the ulcer is located based on the pattern of pain-if the ulcer is in the duodenum, the pain gets better after eating but worse an hour later; if it’s in the stomach, the pain gets worse when eating. In severe cases there may be vomiting of blood or passing of a tarlike black stool, which is a result of bleeding from the duodenum. A major cause of ulcers is bacterial infection. The bacteria Helicobacter pylori erode the stomach lining, reducing the protective mucous membrane and stimulating the production of excessive stomach acid. Prolonged use of aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs has also been linked with ulcers, as have smoking, alcohol use, and stress. Antibiotics and acid blocker medications are commonly prescribed for ulcers. Chinese medicine recognizes that pathogens, diet, and stress play key roles in the development of digestive disorders. Ulcers in particu­lar are viewed as a disharmony between the stomach and liver networks. I see many more conditions of gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD)-a precursor condition-than ulcers. The treatment for both conditions focus on harmonizing the stomach and liver systems, healing the lining of the digestive tract, supporting the functions of digestion, and easing pain and discomfort.

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