Could your gastrointestinal tract be driving your autoimmune disorder? It sounds strange, but according to recent research, the answer may be yes. It turns out the idea of “leaky gut” may have more merit than we first believed. However, it isn’t food causing the problem — it’s gut bacteria escaping the G.I. tract and invading other tissues.
• ScienceDaily recently published data from Yale University researchers showing that bacteria found in the gut can sometimes travel outside of the G.I. tract. When these “bad bacteria” enter other areas of the body, the immune system considers them invaders and launches a response to help reduce their numbers or eliminate them entirely.
• This immune response is natural — and even desired — but it can be significantly disabling. Flu-like symptoms, inflammation, swelling, fever, and even joint or organ degeneration can occur depending on the bacteria in question and how an individual patient’s immune system reacts.
• One of the most common and problematic bacterias is Enterococcus gallinarum, a tiny little germ that normally lives innocuously inside your intestines. Scientists know that E. gallinarum has the ability to travel to the the lymph nodes, the liver, and spleen in a small number of patients.
• Normally, this translocated bacteria would be swiftly eliminated by your immune system and white blood cells. For some patients, this doesn’t seem to happen; instead, the body begins either attacking its own tissues and/or creating side effects to combat the perceived intruder, such as inflammation and swelling.
• E. gallinarum also causes the body to produce antibodies (your immune system’s own natural defense against bacteria or viruses) in an effort to shed the problem bacteria. These antibodies have a cascade of side effects that produce many of the same symptoms identified in autoimmune liver, spleen, and tissue diseases.
• Here’s what’s promising: researchers who targeted E. gallinarum with antibiotic therapy were successfully able to wipe it out from extraneous tissues. The growth rate of the bacteria was severely stunted, and autoimmune symptoms shrank or even disappeared as a direct result.
• Because E. gallinarum does play an important role in the G.I. tract, researchers had to be creative. They found a way to deliver the drug into the system, targeting traveling bacteria, without harming gut populations by injecting antibiotics directly into large muscle groups. This intramuscular injection allowed the antibiotic to attack the germ without entering the gastrointestinal tract.
• Senior author Martin Kriegel, M.D explains it best. “”When we blocked the pathway leading to inflammation, we could reverse the effect of this bug on autoimmunity,” he said. “Treatment with an antibiotic and other approaches such as vaccination are promising ways to improve the lives of patients with autoimmune disease.
• However, Kriegel was also quick to caution patients against assuming too much about the validity of this type of treatment in humans. “The vaccine against E. gallinarum was a specific approach, as vaccinations against other bacteria we investigated did not prevent mortality and autoimmunity.”
• That said, the finding is important because it could tell researchers how to target and protect patients suffering from autoimmune diseases, such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. The gastrointestinal tract contains thousands of such “invaders,” not all of which are negative or positive. Future research may look at specifically targeting any of these bacteria to improve health or eliminate illness.