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Gut bacteria: The missing piece of the MS puzzle
We’re learning more about multiple sclerosis (MS) every day. For instance, we know the early stages of the disease are driven by a malfunctioning immune system.
Immune cells usually stay outside the brain and spinal cord. But in MS, activated immune cells infiltrate the brain and spinal cord and destroy nerve fibers.
We also know:
- Women are more prone to developing MS.
- It’s likely the Epstein-Barr virus plays a role in MS development.
- Various environmental factors can also increase MS risk, including smoking, stress and vitamin D deficiency. In fact, one study shows that each time a woman raised her vitamin D levels to 50 nmol/L, she effectively lowered her MS risk by 39 percent.
Another of those environmental factors in MS risk involves the gut microbiome — the trillions of gut bacteria living in the human intestinal system.
Evidence points to significant differences between the gut microbes of patients with MS and those without the disease…
Certain gut bacteria could help MS
A Danish study confirmed that MS patients do not have the same gut microbiome as healthy people. And the composition and function of the bacteria in their intestines differ depending on whether their illness is active and if they are being treated.
“Some groups of bacteria occur more frequently in people with multiple sclerosis, and other bacteria groups are more frequent in people without MS,” says Finn Sellebjerg, a professor at Rigshospitalet and the University of Copenhagen and one of the study researchers.
The researchers used genetic analyses to identify the different types of bacteria and their effects. They identified a link between some of the changes in the bacteria of MS patients and the occurrence of inflammatory reactions in the body.
Specifically, two types of health-promoting bacteria that were more prevalent in MS patients whose disease was inactive were Faecalibacterium prausnitzii and Gordonibacter urolithinfaciens. These two species reduce an over-reactive immune system by producing certain fatty acids our bodies can’t create themselves, as well as a substance called urolithin.
Supporting your gut’s MS-fighting power
These findings and previous ones indicate a link between diet, bacteria and MS disease progression. Next, the group hopes to confirm their findings in independent studies and then initiate treatment trials.
Until then, Prof. Sellebjerb says, “We can’t do much about some of these things. We can’t remove the Epstein-Barr virus. We can’t change genetics. But we can stop smoking and take vitamin D supplements, although these aren’t the strong risk factors. However, we are now starting to identify some bacterial strains which have a beneficial effect. Perhaps in the long term, patients will be able to take dietary supplements that promote development of the right intestinal bacteria, or we can take intestinal bacteria that promote a favorable metabolism in the intestine.
“Our results have given us a handful more pieces in the 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of multiple sclerosis, but there are still large gaps. The great difference is that the pieces we have found are starting to reveal systems that we can manipulate without the side effects some medicines can have.”
Diet can help manage the inflammation associated with MS flare-ups.
Studies have also shown that isoflavones like those found in soybeans, peanuts, chickpeas and other legumes can offer some protection against inflammatory MS symptoms. However, the person in question needs to have the right gut bacteria to break down these phytoestrogens and release their protective properties.
Also when foods like turkey that contain tryptophan, ar eaten, the microbes in the gut break it down into components that can cross the blood-brain barrier and help immune cells quell inflammation in the brain. These components do so by accessing a special gut-brain “pathway” that’s been linked to MS and Alzheimer’s disease.
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1. Intestinal bacteria may be an important piece in the jigsaw puzzle of multiple sclerosis — Rigshospitalet
2. The gut microbiota in multiple sclerosis varies with disease activity — Genome Medicine