Multiple sclerosis is a terrible disease that affects millions of people around the world, and it can be particularly devastating to have to deal with this disease on a daily basis. Researchers have long searched for some sort of cure for the disease, but they have repeatedly come up short. Scientists have starting taking a slightly different approach in recent years, focusing more on how the disease affects the immune system and what might cause it to form. They believe that the more information they have on the disease and how it operates, the better chance that they will come up with more effective treatment options in the near future.
What Are Gut Microbes?
Researchers have recently began to study gut microbes and the role they may play in the development of MS. The question then becomes, what in the world are gut microbes? Researchers essentially examine MS patients' gut profiles, looking at the amounts and types of bacteria that can be found in them. Scientists have found that when looking at the guts of MS patients, certain bacteria become more prevalent and certain bacteria become almost absent.
One study, conducted by researchers at the University of California in San Francisco, focused on the bacteria that were less and more prevalent and tried to determine how they would affect MS patients. To make things clearer, we will break down the study by looking at each research question they posed and what they found.
Did These Bacteria Produce an Inflammatory Response?
The first thing the researchers wanted to figure out was how the presence or absence of specific bacteria affected the immune system. They ran tests to figure out how the bacteria would interact with human immune system cells. The researchers found that Akkermansia muciniphila and Acinetobacter calcoaceticus, two bacteria that were commonly found and abundant in the guts of MS patients, would prompt a pro-inflammatory response from immune cells. Inflammation in the immune system is one of the reasons MS can develop, and also one of the reasons why the disease has a such a terrible impact on the body. To make matters worse, researchers also found that Parabacteroides distasonis, which is all but absent in the guts of MS patients, is one of the most important bacteria in the immune systems regulatory responses. This means that the absence of this bacteria makes the immune system weaker and unable to respond appropriately to inflammation and other pathogens.
Do These Bacteria Have an Effect on Neurodegeneration?
Another important aspect of these bacteria was whether or not they had an effect on neurodegeneration, one of the harsher effects of multiple sclerosis. They found that a microbiome (a collection of bacteria) found in most MS patients leads to a loss of incredibly important immune-regulatory cells. This microbiome can also facilitate neurodegeneration, which researchers believe may point towards a causal link between this specific microbiome and the development of MS.
So Why Does This Matter?
One may wonder why anyone should care about bacteria in the gut. The reality is, this knowledge has the potential to completely change the treatment and prevention of MS. Theoretically, doctors can alter microbiomes in patients by transplanting healthy fecal matter into the patient's gut (not the most glamorous procedure to be sure, but still worth it). Ideally, fixing the microbiome could slow down neurodegeneration and inflammation, and could even stop MS from developing in the first place. Of course, this is all merely speculation and there would need to be multiple trials and studies to figure out the logistics and feasibility of that type of procedure.
Can You Control The Health of Your Gut?
Similarly to any other MS study, patients may be frustrated that the treatments being talked about are theoretical, as they are searching for relief as soon as possible. That begs the question, can MS patients control the health of their gut? Thankfully, the answer is yes. Before we delve into discussing gut flora (the overall gut biome) we need to clarify that these tips are NOT guaranteed to boost or reduce any of the bacteria discussed above. These tips will not cure or prevent MS. However, your gut flora has a great effect on your overall health, so following these tips could very well improve your quality of life (and maybe even make living with MS more manageable). Below are a few tips you can follow to have a healthy gut:
Reduce Antibiotic Use
Antibiotics have been shown to reduce beneficial bacteria in the gut's microbiome, which is why some medical scholars are wondering if antibiotics are worth it. However, you should not stop using antibiotics, especially those prescribed to you, without a discussion with your doctor. If you already are battling MS, you are likely going to be on some antibiotics, and it is not a good idea to stop taking them. The takeaway from this is to talk to your doctor about ways to avoid using common over-the-counter antibiotics like aspirin, tylenol, ibuprofen, etc.
Learn Stress Management Skills
Stress is a natural part of life, and you will always have stress over something. However, if that stress builds up too much, it can have many hurtful effects on your health, including the health of your gut. Learning to manage stress is a key part of keeping a healthy gut. There are many ways to manage stress including exercise, yoga, mindfulness mediation, plenty of sleep, and even watching your favorite TV show. The added bonus is that stress can hurt your mood and relationships, show managing your stress will have benefits throughout your physical, mental, and social health.
Reduce Sugar and Carbohydrate Consumption
As usual, many health issues can be traced back to dietary choices and pitfalls. Sugars and carbs can react poorly with gut bacteria and cause excessive gas and bloating. Any healthy diet is going to have some sugars and carbs, so the key is to moderate your consumption. The biggest culprits for sugars are usually things like snack cakes, cookies, candy, and sodas. As for carbs, the best way to regulate your carb intake is to reduce your consumption of bad carbs. The easiest way to do this is to replace white grains (white rice, white bread, white pasta, etc.) with whole wheat grains. This will react better with your gut and keep the bacteria and bloating under control.
Increase Consumption of Prebiotics
Prebiotics are ingredients in foods that promote the growth of gut flora (particularly the good bacteria). Eating a lot of foods with prebiotics is a great way to get a healthier gut and increase the amount of beneficial bacteria present in your body. Below are some of the foods that are known to have prebiotic ingredients:
Fermented foods also have some prebiotic properties, and are also loaded with beneficial bacteria themselves. Some of them are a bit exotic, but these foods are the fermented foods that can be very beneficial:
- Sauerkraut (Not the canned, unpasteurized kind found in the refrigeration section of the grocery store)
The newfound knowledge of the importance of gut bacteria in MS development could lead to some innovative new treatments down the road. In the meantime, focusing on the health of your gut is a good way to achieve better health to fight MS and the many symptoms it brings. For more information on MS and other disease, be sure to check out the rest of our articles.