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Continued: Scientists discover more about the battle in your belly

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune
  • Last update: July 30, 2014 - 2:26 PM

Studies have found that some 70 percent of our immune system is tied to the bacteria in our gut. The composition of gut bacteria in the body has been linked to cancer, depression, rheumatoid arthritis and even autism, although doctors caution that the research is preliminary and more studies are needed.

“We are coming to terms with the fact that gut bacteria form an additional, really important factor when we think about how people get disease and how treatment affects them,” said Dr. Purna Kashyap, associate program director of the Mayo Clinic’s Microbiome Program.

Before, Khoruts said, our view of microbes was defined only in terms of which ones caused infectious diseases. Scientists such as Louis Pasteur were able to nail down specific micro-organisms linked to disease.

“From then on, medicine [has] only looked at microbes as something that can cause disease. Pure evil,” Khoruts said.

With the first phase of the government’s Human Microbiome Project complete, scientists are gaining a better understanding of what some call our “hidden organ.” Improved technology has made it possible to study the deeper connection between good bacteria and our health. The food we eat, to a large extent, dictates what bacteria are present in our stomachs.

“We’ve always known that there are bacteria in our gut,” Kashyap said. “But there were two problems: One, we didn’t actually have the capability to study them. Two, we never realized how much they could actually be contributing to disease.”

Probiotics debate

The quest for better health has led many to the drugstore for probiotics. Essentially, probiotics are live “good” bacteria that people ingest in a capsule or liquid.

“You’re hoping that by giving a bacteria to an individual, that bacteria can make a home in the gut and benefit the host,” Kashyap explained.

While it sounds good, he questions its effectiveness for treating or preventing gut-related problems.

“Think of this: How well does a new kid who joins a high school of 200 other kids do? [He’s] totally out of place. Some make it, and some don’t. It’s that kind of an environment,” he said.

Khoruts, too, said he is skeptical about the growing multibillion-dollar probiotics industry.

“With probiotics the way they are now, you don’t have to prove that they help any disease. Nobody knows what it means to ‘benefit health,’ ” he said, referring to the message that typically appears on product labels. “It’s a pretty massive industry altogether. They’ve got a good story that sounds believable and it drives itself.”

Karen Maney, for one, is a true believer in the healing power of gut bacteria. The 56-year-old says it has helped manage her multiple sclerosis.

Having read about possible connections between gut bacteria and M.S., she went to Plotnikoff, who performed a gut analysis. The lab report showed that she had a high amount of candida yeast in her gut.

“It did prove that my gut was just a mess,” she said.

She cut out dairy, sugar, wheat, gluten and alcohol from her diet. Those changes have left her feeling energized. Fatigue, a common M.S. symptom, was gone, she said.

Before her diagnosis, she said, “I hadn’t given thought to my digestive system at all. I don’t think I’d even heard about gut bacteria.”

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