Balancing Gut Bacteria Could Be the Key to Solving Chronic Stomach Problems

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A new study shows that solving chronic stomach distress may be as simple as balancing the microbacteria living in our gut.

Up to 45 million people suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in the U.S., and scientists project that perhaps 15 percent of the population worldwide suffers from the disorder.

This petri dish holds stained gut bacteria. Credit: Nicola Fawcett/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

But a new study finds that cutting the amount of harmful bacteria in the stomach and intestines can greatly reduce disease burden. That would come as high relief for people with IBS who regularly suffer from diarrhea, bloating, cramping and other symptoms.

“Researchers could identify a particular bacterial composition in the patients who have severe symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, giving evidence that our gut bacteria are playing a large part in our symptoms,” Dr. Sean Preston, Chairman of the British Society of Gastroenterology, told Express, an English news outlet.

People who suffer from IBS endure varying challenges and limitations, with symptoms ranging from a “mild inconvenience to severe debilitation,” notes the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders.

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Preston believes that the findings of the new study may give scientists the ability to one day “manipulate [patients’] gut bacteria” to mitigate the effects of IBS and other conditions that have been linked to gut bacteria.

IBS is different from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a condition for which numbers are spiking, that often results in the same symptoms.

Other recent studies on gut bacteria have shown that replenishing good bacteria can limit the dangerous effects of intestinal infections caused by E. coli and salmonella.

Pushing Microbiota a Step Further

Appearing in the Journal of Gastroenterology, the new study expands on what has become a fertile area of research pertaining to gut health.

Ulcerative colitis (as shown in this biopsy) is a type of inflammatory bowel disease. Credit: KGH/Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0

“Gut microbiota has been well recognized in regulation of intestinal homeostasis and pathogenesis of inflammatory bowel diseases. However, the mechanisms involved are still not completely understood. Further, the components of the microbiota which are critically responsible for such effects are also largely unknown,” write a research team led by Dr. Yingzi Cong of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas.

The researchers note that mammalian gastrointestinal tracts have “huge amounts of diverse microbes, comprising more than 1,000 strains.” Specifically, the researchers targeted short chain fatty acids (SCFA), which “are metabolized by gut bacteria from otherwise indigestible fiber-rich diets.”

Related: Probiotic-Packed Foods You May Want to Add to Your Diet

These “useful metabolites” have proven to ameliorate symptoms of bowel disease in animal studies. “The gut is the primary site where SCFA mediate their effect on either intestinal epithelial integrity or mucosal immune responses. The disorder of gut microbiota leading to decreased SCFA is associated with colonic diseases,” add the researchers.

The team believes that the SCFAs “represent a new frontier in manipulation and prevention of” bowel disease. While they call for further studies to help unwrap the potential treatment methods of SFCA, they add that these acids are “found to regulate the functions of almost every type of immune cell.” For instance, they have shown to alter gene expression and proliferation, among other effects.

Yet “many questions remain to be investigated,” the study authors say. “For example, how diets with high-fiber regulate gut microbiota composition and function, and what the role of SCFA is in such a process.”

The answers to these burning questions may reveal how “dietary manipulation” can treat bowel disease, conclude the researchers.

Richard Scott
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.