Sugar, Hydrogen, Bacteria and Maldigestion

There are several ways to cause a nutrient deficiency. The first is to eat too little of a nutrient. Another way is to burn through your body's nutrient stores at an accelerated rate, for example, what omega-6 vegetable oils do to vitamin E, and what wheat bran does to vitamin D. A third way is to eat enough nutrients but fail to absorb them efficiently.

A good way to reduce your absorption of nutrients is to lower your stomach's acidity. This will protect you from those pesky nutrients protein, vitamin B12, and iron (and probably others as well). The stomach is one tough organ. When it receives food, a healthy stomach lowers its pH to roughly 2.0 by secreting hydrochloric acid. That's more acidic than lemon juice and more than 10 times more acidic than vinegar. This begins to break food down, and will kill most bacteria and other pathogens. Stomach acidity is basically the body's way of "cooking" food before further digestion. At the same time, the stomach secretes pepsin, which is an acid-stable enzyme that digests protein.

Insufficient stomach acidity promotes bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine and allows undigested proteins into the intestine. The gastrin knockout mouse, which is incapable of producing stomach acid, suffers from bacterial overgrowth, inflammation, damage and precancerous polyps in its intestines. The same thing happens when you treat mice with a drug that inhibits stomach acidification.

There are a few different ways to reduce your stomach's acidity level. The most straightforward is to take an antacid, or any number of drugs that lower stomach acidity (as in the mouse study above). But can we do it naturally? Sure, all it takes is a little Helicobacter pylori infection! Luckily, most people already have one.

H. pylori is a bacterium that's the main proximal cause of stomach ulcers. Antibiotics are now the standard treatment for ulcers, and they're effective. Treating an asymptomatic H. pylori infection with antibiotics increases stomach acidity, suggesting that H. pylori is capable of suppressing the secretion of stomach acid. In another study, eradicating H. pylori with antibiotics improved nearly all patients suffering from hypochlorhydria (insufficient stomach acid).

Like any organism, H. pylori likes to stay well-fed. Its favorite food is hydrogen gas (H2), and the more it gets, the more it grows. It's not the only bacterium to like H2. Salmonella, of food poisoning fame, requires H2 to become pathogenic. Clostridium bacteria are also associated with elevated H2. H2 is produced by the fermentation of food by bacteria in the digestive tract. It's very small so it diffuses around the body, reaching the stomach lining where it's eagerly gobbled up by H. pylori. It may be equally good food for a number of other parasites around the body.

Now let's stop beating around the bush and get to the meat of this post. It's all summed up in a beautiful title: Fructose Intake at Current Levels in the United States May Cause Gastrointestinal Distress in Normal Adults. Dr. Richard W. McCallum et al. fed doses of isolated fructose to 15 normal adults. Can I say it any better than the abstract?
More than half of the 15 adults tested showed evidence of fructose malabsorption after 25 g fructose and greater than two thirds showed malabsorption after 50 g fructose... Fructose, in amounts commonly consumed, may result in mild gastrointestinal distress in normal people.
Here's where it gets really interesting. One of the measures of malabsorption they used was H2 on the breath. Both the 25g and the 50g doses caused a large increase in H2, especially the 50g dose (5-fold increase). This is the same thing you see in people who are lactose intolerant. Bacterial fermentation is the only significant source of H2 in the human body. That means the fructose was hanging around in the small intestine for long enough to be decomposed by the local bacteria, who took advantage of it to proliferate.

Certain types of fiber also promote H2 production. Resistant starch, as well as certain non-caloric sweeteners, are readily fermented into H2 in some people. Cellulose, the predominant fiber in vegetables and grains, does not increase H2. The large difference in fiber content of rural vs. urban Mexican diets
doesn't seem to correlate with H2 production by intestinal bacteria. Interestingly, both white and whole wheat bread increase H2 production.

Let's put those doses of fructose into perspective. One medium banana contains about 7 grams. A 16-ounce bottle of apple juice contains about 30 grams. A slice of cake contains about 12. One "child-size" 12 ounce cup of Coca-Cola from McDonald's contains 17 grams (as long as you don't get a refill!). One large 32 ounce Coca-Cola contains 47 grams. Your H. pylori will be VERY pleased if you drink one of those, especially if you use it to wash down the white flour bun on your hamburger.

I do think it's important to mention that the study described above used isolated fructose. It's not clear that other sources of fructose would behave the same. For example, the presence of glucose enhances fructose absorption. Fruit, table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup all contain glucose. It's also not clear what the effect would be of eating fructose with a meal rather than in isolation. None of this has been studied to my knowledge, so we're left extrapolating from studies that used pure fructose.

Now let's connect the dots. Excessive fructose, certain types of fiber, and wheat cause bacterial overgrowth and H2 production (if you believe the fructose-H2 connection). Elevated H2 causes overgrowth of H. pylori and possibly other pathogenic bacteria in the body. H. pylori lowers stomach acid, causing further overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine. This causes inflammation and increases the risk for digestive cancers.

Decreased stomach acid also causes malabsorption of protein, B12, iron and perhaps other nutrients. It allows undigested protein to travel into the small intestine. This could potentially be very important. For example, many people are allergic to the casein in milk. It's one of the two most common alleriges, along with gluten. Both casein and gluten are proteins. A normally functioning stomach at the proper pH should completely digest casein. You can't be allergic to casein if there's none around. I don't know if the same applies to gluten.

Robust digestion may explain why many healthy non-industrial groups do very well eating dairy, sometimes to the exclusion of nearly everything else, yet many people in modern societies do better without dairy protein (butter is typically well tolerated). This phenomenon could also go a long way toward explaining the fact that allergies are becoming more and more common in industrial nations as we consume more sugar.

Thanks to Peter and Matt Stone for some of the ideas I incorporated into this post. Thanks to pbo31 for the CC photo.