Is Milk Good for an Ulcer?

Nutrition Q&A

Drinking milk will not help heal an ulcer.
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Question: My husband has a peptic ulcer, and our neighbor told him he should drink lots of milk, but the doctor said that it won't help and might even hurt his stomach. Who's right? Are there any specific diet changes he should make?"

Answer: Drinking milk definitely won't heal your husband's ulcer, although it may temporarily ease some of the pain if the ulcer hurts worse on an empty stomach. But, not for long.

Back Up. What Exactly Are Peptic Ulcers?

A peptic ulcer is an open sore in the lining of either the stomach or the duodenum, which is the first part of the small intestine. Ulcers can hurt a lot, especially when the stomach is empty. Other symptoms of an ulcer include bloating, heartburn, belching, vomiting and weight loss. If an ulcer gets bad enough that it bleeds, a person might have black tarry stools.

People used to think ulcers were caused by stress, but as it turns out, stress doesn't seem to matter. The most common cause of an ulcer in an imbalance of certain gastric juices called pepsin caused by an infection with bacteria called H. pylori, or longstanding use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin, naproxen, ibuprofen, which are over the counter medications. Some prescription non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs might cause ulcers as well. The imbalance between the pepsin and stomach acids damage the thick mucosal lining of the stomach or the duodenum and the result is the sore we call an ulcer.

Since food goes into the stomach, it's tempting to believe there's a connection between certain foods or beverages and having an ulcer. Specific foods don't cause ulcers, but caffeine and alcohol can make the symptoms much worse. 

Why Was My Husband Told to Drink Milk?

For many years, people with peptic ulcers were told to drink lots of milk and that it would soothe the stomach and help heal the ulcers.

But, that's not always true. It might help for a few minutes but milk also stimulates your stomach to produce hydrochloric acid and that can make the ulcers hurt worse. 

Your husband doesn't have to avoid milk (a serving or two a day is fine), but drinking more milk won't help the ulcer heal.

There don't appear to be specific foods that speed the healing of ulcers; that takes time and medication. But it's always possible that some foods irritate the ulcer more than others, so it's a good idea to give up coffee, tea, cola, chocolate, alcohol and fruit juices until the ulcer is healed. In some cases, ulcer patients may have less discomfort by reducing the amounts of black pepper, garlic and chili powder in used in their meals or at the table.

Meal timing might also make a difference. Some patients have reported a reduction in pain if they skip between-meal snacks because eating less often reduces the amount of stomach acid produced throughout the day. Less stomach acid means less irritation.

Beyond that, it depends on the individual. If particular foods not listed here seem upset your husband's stomach, he should probably avoid them until the ulcer has healed.

Otherwise there aren't any specific dietary recommendations. Many years ago, people with ulcers were put on bland diets until their ulcers healed, but that's not necessary. The best advice I can give is to talk to your health care provider about any questions you may have about foods and diet during the treatment.

Sources:

American College of Gastroenterology. Peptic Ulcer Disease.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Helicobacter pylori and Peptic Ulcer Disease

Cleveland Clinic. "Peptic Ulcer Disease." 

Maher AK. "Simplified Diet Menu." Eleventh Edition, Hoboken NJ, USA: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, October 2011.

United States Department of Health and Human Services, National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. H. Pylori and Peptic Ulcers.

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