Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Diagnosis by gut bacteria?

Please don't take the title of this post too literally. Sciences is only just beginning to unravel the first strands of the complicated universe that is our gut microbiota but two recent papers certainly do make for some interesting reading.

The first paper by Iebba and colleagues* provides quite a nice summary of where we stand (research-wise) with regards to different bacterial species seemingly predominating in different childhood conditions. The second paper by Jeffery and colleagues** details the intriguing possibility that irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or some phenotypes of IBS based on the presence of functional bowel disturbances, might be classifiable by the predominating types of gut bacteria.

The Iebba paper was of double (triple) interest to me because it mentioned autism, coeliac disease (CD) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in the same sentence. In particular, the prevalence of Bacteroidetes alongside a parallel decrease of Firmicutes was a commonality between these three conditions; the first time I've seen a research group looking (bacterially) at these conditions together. I have to point out that autism is an extremely heterogeneous condition with quite a lot of scope for comorbidity; hence I am careful with any generalisations.

By contrast the Jeffery paper, although based on quite a small participant group, suggested quite a few things including that cluster analysis might be able to 'pick out' those cases of IBS associated with diarrhoea compared with those where constipation or alternating bowel habits were more common. Interestingly, their analysis also reported the opposite trend in terms of an increase of Firmicutes-associated taxa and a depletion of Bacteroidetes-related taxa in some of their participant cases. This alongside other related findings which perhaps indicate that the so-called 'leaky gut' (gut hyperpermeability) might also show some differences in terms of site when sub-categorising IBS on the basis of predominant functional bowel patterns.

Aside from factors such as different ages, different populations, different genders, et al, all of this makes me wonder about things like the immune system differences between conditions like IBD and CD compared with IBS. Indeed a few open questions: do the gut bacteria findings in autism perhaps reflect similar immune features to CD and IBD or is it all merely a coincidence? Is IBS an immune-mediated condition the same way as CD or IBD are or are other forces at work?

Without getting too Arthur C. Clarke, there are lots of potential possibilities to these collected works based on our individual and collected patterns of gut microbiota. Unlike fingerprints or retinal scans, gut bacteria is perhaps slightly more dynamic as a function of diet, environment, etc. and so is probably not going to be biometrically encoded onto your passport any time soon. Having said that, if the subtle differences between our gut bacteria might also be reflective of our condition or disease, this could potentially offer some quite startling insights into the way medicine diagnoses and also manages a wide variety of conditions.

Finally, this is probably my last post on this blog until the New Year. I would like to wish readers Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I raise a glass of water to your good digestive health over the holiday period!

* Iebba V. et al. Gut microbiota and pediatric disease. Digestive Diseases. December 2011.

** Jeffery IB. et al. An irritable bowel syndrome subtype defined by species-specific alterations in faecal microbiota. Gut. December 2011.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The leaky gut and chronic fatigue syndrome

I've mentioned the TV programme called the Food Hospital before on this blog in a post not so long ago about Crohn's disease and the LOFFLEX diet. Having watched the episodes so far as well as the various social networking chatter about the series, my conclusion is that it is rather a brave programme to broadcast in terms of 'treating' various medical conditions simply with adjustments to diet. I will perhaps lay my stall out to you in that I am swayed by some of the arguments that food, certain foods, do place certain people at a health disadvantage outside of known food-related conditions such as coeliac (celiac) disease and PKU. The emerging data, albeit preliminary, on some cases of autism and ADHD seems to be pointing in that direction for example.

The latest programme aired on Tuesday 13 December (2011) again presented some interesting 'cases' and the potential link to food. One particular cases was that of a woman diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). I don't want to get too bogged down with a description of CFS (and CFS/ME) because it is quite complicated. Without blowing my own trumpet, I was involved in a paper on trying to describe CFS a while back which suggested that quite a few symptoms might be variably expressed including physical, somatic features alongside other more cognitive issues. The bottom line is that CFS/ME is a real and very often complicated condition.

The Food Hospital suggested a few things in terms of diet which might be useful for the particular lady with CFS in question. Outside of chocolate being suggested (and not doing particularly well in this case) I thought I also heard the suggestion that a glutamine-rich diet might also be something to try. My attention was grabbed by this suggestion for a very good reason: glutamine (also called L-glutamine) has some interesting effects on the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and in particular, intestinal permeability.

Maybe I should back up a little here. Glutamine is an amino acid, a building block of protein. For quite a few years, glutamine has been finding some favour in relation to improving the structural integrity of the intestinal barrier in both humans and animals and potentially relieving the so-called 'leaky gut'. Leaky gut is a bit of a misnomer because everyone has leaky gut to some degree; the better description would perhaps be gut hyperpermeability or excessive leakiness.

With regards to CFS/ME, as with other conditions, leaky gut has been reported in the research literature and commented on elsewhere. One name seems to crop up quite a lot in this area of investigation, Dr Michael Maes and not just with regards to CFS/ME. It seems leaky gut might have the potential to do all manner of things. So putting leaky gut, CFS/ME and glutamine together might make some sense? Aside from the paper from Maes, I have been unable to find any other published trials of glutamine for CFS/ME which is a shame really, given that a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of a solitary supplement like glutamine should be a pretty straight-forward experiment to do (he says with a straight face). Any budding researchers out there with a few hundred thousand pounds to spare could do a lot worse than put such an experiment to their boss and local ethics committee.

I would finally add that as per the tenets of this and my other blogs, I don't give out medical advice and am not suggesting for one minute that glutamine is a cure-all for CFS/ME. I do however reiterate that for a condition like CFS/ME where more questions are being asked than answered, every experimental and research avenue should be explored.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Probiotics, probiotics, probiotics

Do you ever have one of those days where a certain word seems to keep cropping up again and again no matter where you turn? Well, today is one of those days for me, and today's word is probiotics. Like a good dose of influenza (if there is such a thing as a good dose), I just can't seem to shake that word today.

So here are the papers with that word:

Delzenne and colleagues* (open-access) report on an interesting relationship between gut bacteria and obesity with a specific focus on studies looking to 'alter' the gut microbiota via pre- and probiotics and the various reported outcomes based on anthropometric and biochemical parameters linked to obesity. I talked about something similar a few months back on a sister blog.

Min Tan and colleagues** (open-access) report on the quite positive effects to patients recovering from traumatic brain injury in intensive care following administration of probiotics. Based on a relatively small patient group, patients (n=52) were randomised into either a nutrition + probiotics group or a nutrition alone group. Feeds were administered via a nasogastric tube initially which then progressed to the 'by mouth' route when patients were well enough. Various serum cytokines and related immune markers were analysed over the course of the study which lasted for 21 days.

Unfortunately some of the patients did not make it following their group allocation as sadly might be expected following a serious brain trauma. Other patients developed complications following their accident which did not seem to differ in quantity statistically between the groups aside from the number of pathogens potentially related to infections: fewer pathogens in the probiotic group. The probiotic group (the probiotic including Bifidobacterium longum, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, and Streptococcus thermophilus) did however show an altered immune profile to the control group in terms of indications of the Th1-Th2 slant to the immune system. Although perhaps a little simplistic, Th1 represents the fighting infection side of the immune system and Th2 is the production of antibodies side of things. The probiotic group showed an immune profile more representative of the Th1 response, speculated to be important for their speedier recovery and their less frequent use of antibiotics.

Although the results were not totally astounding in this study, there is an important clinical lesson from this trial in that patients spent statistically less time in intensive care and relied on fewer antibiotics during their recovery as a result of probiotic administration. For patients and physicians alike, this has got to be a good thing.

Finally, ScienceDaily carries an interesting statement from the Annual Scientific Meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG) regarding probiotics and the potential anti-inflammatory properties of certain types of probiotic. I like to sound of the collected press conference for the studies listed in this release: "Good, bad and ugly bugs: Mother Nature as a treatment for better health in the GI tract". As per the release there are a few headlines including:

  • A meta-analysis of studies looking at the use of probiotics used to reduce cases of antibiotic-associated diarrhoea (diarrhea) concluded that yep, probiotics, and particularly that most lovable to yeasts Saccharomyces boulardii, do a pretty good job at curbing your risk of this quite unpleasant condition.
  • The use of Bifidobacterium infantis 35624 for those suffering from recurrent abdominal bloating and discomfort did not fare too well in a new randomised-controlled trial. B.infantis 35624 had previously shown some interesting positive results for those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
  • Having said that, it was not all bad news for B.infantis 35624 as per another trial which suggested that the probiotic might have some pretty good anti-inflammatory properties when it comes to those dastardly pro-inflammatory cytokines. Indeed that most common of inflammatory markers, C-reactive protein seemed also to be reduced in cases of psoriasis, ulcerative colitis and even in chronic fatigue patients following probiotic administration.

What then can we assume from these collected studies. Well, at least in the short-term under various controlled conditions, probiotics, various probiotics, might just be able to influence our health and ill-health particularly in certain conditions/states. As per my previous post, our collected gut bacteria is a complicated organism which talks to our immune system in ways we are only starting to understand. Like every married couple, sometime the talk is positive and healthy; other times the talk is slightly less healthy... (not in front of the kids!).

Whether in the longer-term, supplementing with probiotics offers any added benefit, I don't know. Speculation (and it is only that) would perhaps suggest that the way probiotics are delivered (those all important enteric coatings), how our immune system recognise bacteria as 'self' or 'not-self' and good old homeostasis (the body's drive to keep harmony) are all factors potentially affecting the ability to make a more permanent shift in our not-so-good bacterial species to those preferred choices. Indeed this last point on what is good and bad gut bacteria perhaps needs a little more research in terms of the effects of individual species, etc on health and wellbeing.

* Delzeene NM. et al. Targeting gut microbiota in obesity: effects of prebiotics and probiotics. Nature Revs. November 2011.

** Min Tan. et al. Effects of probiotics on serum levels of Th1/Th2-cytokine and clinical outcomes in severe traumatic brain-injured patients: a prospective randomized pilot study. Critical Care. December 2011.