Too much sugar bad for gut health: New findings

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Inflammatory Bowel Disease, or IBD, is a disorder where your gut, or intestines, gets inflamed or swells up.

This is a big problem for many people around the world, and it seems to be getting worse.

Interestingly, IBD seems to be growing fastest in places where people have lots of sugar in their diets, like in urban, industrialized areas.

The Experiment and Its Shocking Results

A team of scientists at the University of Pittsburgh decided to investigate this further.

Led by Ansen Burr, a student at Pitt’s Medical Scientist Training Program, they conducted a study that involved feeding mice either a regular diet or a high-sugar diet.

After that, they induced IBD symptoms in the mice using a chemical called DSS that damages the colon.

What they found was startling. All the mice that were fed a high-sugar diet died within nine days. On the other hand, all the mice that were fed a normal diet survived until the end of the 14-day experiment.

What’s Going On Inside the Gut?

The team then examined the colons of the mice to figure out why the sugar was so harmful.

The colon, also known as the large intestine, is lined with cells that are constantly being replaced by dividing stem cells.

When mice on the high-sugar diet were given DSS, this cell replacement process broke down. In some mice, the protective layer of cells was completely lost, filling the colon with blood and immune cells.

The team also found out that a high-sugar diet was equally harmful to germ-free mice. This meant that sugar was damaging the colon directly, not through the gut microbiome, as they initially thought.

Sugar’s Impact on Colonoids

Next, they studied how sugar affected mice and human colonoids. Colonoids are tiny intestines grown in a lab dish.

They found that as the amounts of glucose, sucrose, or fructose increased, fewer colonoids developed and they grew more slowly. This suggested that sugar was hindering cell division.

According to Timothy Hand, the senior author of the study, they discovered that “stem cells were dividing much more slowly in the presence of sugar—likely too slow to repair damage to the colon.”

He also noted that cells’ metabolism seemed to change under high-sugar conditions. They usually prefer using fatty acids, but in a high-sugar environment, they seemed to get stuck on using sugar.

The Link to Sugary Drinks

These findings might explain why other studies have linked sweetened drinks, like soda and juice, to worse outcomes in IBD patients.

Hand explained that the sugars in fruits are tied up in the cells and take a long time to digest. But the sugars in sodas are immediately available as soon as you drink them.

It’s also easy to consume a large amount of sugar in a short time by drinking soda. This research suggests that a high-sugar diet could hinder the repair of the colon in IBD patients.

The Next Steps

The next step is to understand better how diet and the body’s immune response can affect IBD.

Hand hopes that this research can help identify the right diet for each patient, to better manage colon damage whether it’s from IBD or radiation therapy used to treat colon cancer.

The goal is to develop a “nutraceutical approach” — using food as medicine — to deal with colon damage.

If you care about nutrition, please read studies that eating nuts may help reduce risks of the gut lesion and cancer, and how tea and coffee influence your risk of high blood pressure.

For more information about nutrition, please see recent studies that anti-inflammatory diet could help prevent fatty liver disease, and vitamin D could help lower the risk of autoimmune diseases.

The study was published in Cellular and Molecular Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

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