In a new study, researchers found that a high-sugar diet is linked to worse colitis, a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
They found more of the bacteria that can damage the gut’s protective mucus layer in large intestines.
The research was conducted by a team at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
Colitis is a major public health problem in the U.S. and in other Western countries. It can cause persistent diarrhea, abdominal pain, and rectal bleeding.
The number of American adults suffering from IBD (which includes Crohn’s disease) jumped from 2 million in 1999 to 3 million in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In addition, colitis is beginning to show up in children, who historically did not suffer from it.
Because of the disease’s much higher prevalence in Western countries, researchers have looked to the Western-style diet—high in fat, sugar, and animal protein—as a possible risk factor.
While high-fat diets have been found to trigger IBD, the role of sugar has been more controversial.
In the study, the team focused on sugar—particularly the glucose found in high fructose corn syrup developed by the food industry in the 1960s and then increasingly used to sweeten soft drinks and other foods—as a prime suspect.
They fed mice a solution of water with a 10% concentration of various dietary sugars—glucose, fructose, and sucrose—for seven days.
They found that mice that were either genetically predisposed to develop colitis, or those given a chemical that induces colitis, developed more severe symptoms if they were first given sugar.
The researchers then used gene-sequencing techniques to identify the types and prevalence of bacteria found in the large intestines of mice before and after receiving their sugar regimen.
After being given sugar treatments for seven days, those fed sucrose, fructose, and—especially—glucose showed big changes in the gut microbial population.
Bacteria known to produce mucus-degrading enzymes, such as Akkermansia, were found in greater numbers, while some other types of bugs considered good bacteria and commonly found in the gut, such as Lactobacillus, became less abundant.
The researchers saw evidence of a thinning of the mucus layer that protects the lining of the large intestine as well as signs of infection by other bacteria.
This is the key initiating event of intestinal inflammation.
Although glucose had the greatest effect, all three simple sugars profoundly changed the composition of gut microbiota.
Previous studies have shown that the gut microbiota of both humans and mice can change rapidly with a change in diet.
The study clearly shows that people really have to mind their food, says the team.
They now plan to study whether and how high sugar intake affects the development of other inflammatory diseases such as obesity, fatty liver disease, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
One author of the study is Hasan Zaki, Ph.D., a UT Southwestern professor of pathology.
The study is published in Science Translational Medicine.
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