In a new study from Washington University in St. Louis, researchers found that eating a Western diet impairs the immune system in the gut in ways that could increase risk of infection and inflammatory bowel disease.
They showed that a diet high in sugar and fat causes damage to immune cells in the gut that help keep inflammation in check.
When these cells aren’t functioning properly, the gut immune system is excessively prone to inflammation, putting people at risk of inflammatory bowel disease and undermining effective control of disease-causing microbes.
Inflammatory bowel disease has historically been a problem primarily in Western countries such as the U.S., but it’s becoming more common globally as more and more people adopt Western lifestyles.
Paneth cell impairment is a key feature of inflammatory bowel disease.
For example, people with Crohn’s disease, a kind of inflammatory bowel disease characterized by abdominal pain, diarrhea, anemia and fatigue, often have Paneth cells that have stopped working.
In the study, the team analyzed clinical data from 400 people, including an assessment of each person’s Paneth cells.
They found that high body mass index (BMI) was linked to Paneth cells that looked abnormal and unhealthy under a microscope. The higher a person’s BMI, the worse his or her Paneth cells looked.
The association held for healthy adults and people with Crohn’s disease.
In people, obesity is frequently the result of eating a diet rich in fat and sugar. So the scientists fed normal mice a diet in which 40% of the calories came from fat or sugar, similar to the typical Western diet.
After two months on this chow, the mice had become obese and their Paneth cells looked decidedly abnormal.
The team says obesity wasn’t the problem per se. Eating too much of a healthy diet didn’t affect the Paneth cells. It was the high-fat, high-sugar diet that was the problem.
The Paneth cells returned to normal when the mice were put back on a healthy mouse diet for four weeks.
The team says it’s possible that if people have Western diet for so long, they cross a point of no return and their Paneth cells don’t recover even if they change your diet.
Scientists need to do more research before they can say whether this process is reversible in people.
If you care about gut health, please read studies about causes and treatments of common gut pain, gassiness, bloating and findings of this type of gut bacteria may cause bowel cancer.
For more information about gut diseases prevention and treatment, please see recent studies about common heartburn drugs may foster harmful bacteria in your gut and results showing that common gut disease linked to substance use disorders.
The study is published in Cell Host & Microbe. One author of the study is Ta-Chiang Liu, MD, Ph.D.
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