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Can Good Nutrition Cure an Aching Gut?

Published
June 14, 2011
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Joseph Brasco MD
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An intriguing new study involving mice and cheese (lucky little rodents!) brings information that may lead to a natural treatment for a group of people who could really use it — those who suffer from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

I’ll get to the finding in a minute, but let’s start with a brief explanation of what IBD is, in case you are among the fortunate folks who don’t know much about it. IBD is the collective name for a group of chronic inflammatory diseases of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract — two of the most common are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. These diseases set off an immune response, causing deep inflammation in the intestines. IBD differs from the more common irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in that it involves what doctors call “active pathology” in the tissues. This means that when intestinal tissue from a person with IBD is biopsied, there will be evidence of visible, active inflammation, which would not be the case with IBS.

In people with IBD, the immune system mistakenly targets the GI tract. What sets off this inappropriate response is a matter of debate, but it may be that certain substances such as food residues, cellular products and bacteria trigger an attack on the intestinal cells. White blood cells (defenders) get dispatched to “protect” the intestines, and their continual attack in turn produces chronic inflammation, causing symptoms such as diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, fever and rectal bleeding — and it even can affect the joints, skin, eyes and liver.

A Natural Solution?

IBD patients are typically treated with four classes of medications — aminosalicylates, steroids, immune modifiers and antibiotics — with varying degrees of success, so researchers are always looking for other solutions to calm the overreactive guts of people with this miserable condition. A team of researchers from the Netherlands looked at whey protein because they thought it might be helpful in encouraging production of a mucus-like substance, called mucin, that soothes inflamed tissue. Increasing its production can allow the gut to better protect itself, explained Joseph Brasco, MD, a gastroenterologist from The Center for Colon & Digestive Disorders in Huntsville, Alabama, who I called to talk over the significance of this finding.

Whey is a milk-based product, high in protein and essential amino acids. Its high concentration of two amino acids in particular — threonine and cystein– led researchers to believe that it might be helpful, since they are necessary for the production of mucin.

Whey To Go!

Having induced colitis in mice, the researchers fed them one of three diets to evaluate their effects. One diet featured casein, another milk-based derivative, as the main source of protein… the second group was also fed casein, but supplemented with the two amino acids threonine and cystein… while the third ate a diet emphasizing whey protein.

Not only did the whey protein diet increase mucin secretion and protect against gut inflammation in general, it also increased the colonization of lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, probiotics that help support immune function. The other two diets resulted in no significant change.

According to Dr. Brasco, the standard way to treat people with IBD has been drug therapy that works to modify the immune response, which in turn, slows down the progression of the disease. What’s so interesting about this study, he said, “is that they are trying to alter and improve the gut itself through nutrition. I’m encouraged by the fact that researchers are beginning to think that the immune system itself might be responding to abnormalities in the gut and that correcting those abnormalities might be a first order of business, one in which nutrition plays a huge part.”

Promising as this finding is, Dr. Brasco said it’s nowhere near time for IBD patients to toss out their meds and switch to whey protein drinks. It’s an animal study, and it’s not clear how the doses given the mice would translate to human servings. We’ll keep an ear to the ground and let you know when more information is available.