Life can be a waiting game—an anxious and decidedly unfun game—for people whose family history puts them at high risk for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
An umbrella term for a group of digestive disorders, IBD includes ulcerative colitis, which usually is confined to the colon and rectum…and Crohn’s disease, which can appear anywhere along the lining of the digestive tract.
Symptoms can be really terrible, including diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, gas, bloating, bloody stools, malnutrition and more.
Do you know if IBD has affected anyone in your family?
You should—because you no longer have to just wait for it to hit you. Now, there is news about something you can do to lower your risk of getting it…
FEEDING THE GOOD
The news comes from a study that examined the effects of something called a prebiotic—but before I tell you about the research, let me quickly remind you about the workings of the bacteria in your gut.
In your intestines are trillions of bacteria, with the specific types varying from person to person based on factors such as diet and environment. One theory about IBD suggests that it is caused by an overactive immune response to some “bad” bacteria in the intestines.
The “good versus bad bacteria” idea is nothing new—in fact, it’s one reason why you want that “live, active cultures” label on your yogurt. Those live, active cultures are probiotics, beneficial bacteria that you can ingest directly. A prebiotic is different—it is food for bacteria, so you can use it to support certain types of beneficial bacteria that are already in your gut.
For this study, the researchers wanted to use a prebiotic supplement (basically a type of fiber) to feed and thus increase a specific population of beneficial bacteria before IBD developed. The goal was to see whether the prebiotic might help prevent the development of the disease or make it less severe if it did develop.
Researchers performed the study on mice that did not have symptoms of the disease but were genetically predisposed to develop colitis after infection with “bad” bacteria. One group of mice received a prebiotic supplement of galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) daily for six weeks…a second group did not get GOS. After the first two weeks, the researchers purposely infected all the mice with a pathogen to trigger the onset of colitis.
Results: Compared with mice that did not get GOS, those that were fed the prebiotic developed significantly less severe colitis…and their lab tests showed much less inflammation and dysplasia (abnormal tissue development) in their digestive tracts.
Researchers hypothesize that the prebiotic helps by increasing the number of protective bacteria in the gut, which in turn enhances immune function, reduces intestinal inflammation and/or reduces colonizing of harmful pathogens.
IS IT RIGHT FOR YOU?
I called lead researcher Jenifer Fenton, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor in the department of food science and human nutrition at Michigan State University in East Lansing. She emphasized that because this study was conducted in mice, the results—though encouraging—cannot be directly translated to people. So human studies definitely are needed. In the meantime, however…
Patients who already have IBD should consult the physician treating their IBD before deciding whether to take GOS. “The problem with having a chronic disease such as IBD for years is that it leads to a dramatic change in the intestinal tissue. A supplement could theoretically make it worse,” she explained. What’s more, because GOS is a type of fiber, it may not be well-tolerated by IBD patients, who often cannot eat a high-fiber diet.
So who is most likely to benefit from GOS? People with a family history of IBD (meaning that their parent, sibling or child has or had the disease)…and perhaps those who are at risk for exposure to pathogenic gut bacteria (for instance, because they are traveling to a new country).
To determine whether GOS is appropriate for you, consult a doctor with expertise in nutrition. You may be given a test called a comprehensive digestive stool analysis. As for dosage, follow your doctor’s guidelines. (By way of comparison, Dr. Fenton mentioned one human study published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in which participants took daily doses of up to five grams of GOS.) GOS generally is safe, though it may cause an increase in flatulence and/or mild gastrointestinal discomfort, particularly in people who are not accustomed to consuming much fiber.
You may face a challenge in getting hold of GOS because the supplement isn’t easy to find in the US. One available option is ProBiota Immune from Seeking Health (available at http://amzn.to/ZV37fx). On the label, the suggested serving size is about one to two teaspoons per day. Several GOS-containing products also are available from Europe, such as Bimuno IBAID (www.Bimuno.com/buy-now).