A gut feeling about microbes and rheumatoid arthritis

bacteria760Call it a gut reaction. That's essentially what the Chicago Tribune did when reporting on a possible link between "the trillions of microbes living and working" inside our digestive systems and rheumatoid arthritis, a "mysterious and painful autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation in the joints." While the paper reports that a smoking gun trigger has yet to show itself, some "emerging research" suggests that our "intestinal bacteria" has the potential to influence our odds of developing certain autoimmune diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis.

It's a finding, the paper says, that could lead to new "novel treatments and diagnostic methods" for the more than 1 million Americans living with rheumatoid arthritis. The latest link was discovered by a team of scientists at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, who compared "the gut bacteria" of patients with known cases of rheumatoid arthritis with those of healthy people. They found that that a bacterium "known as Prevotella copri" was "more abundant in patients with newly diagnosed rheumatoid arthritis than in healthy people or patients with chronic, treated rheumatoid arthritis." The lead researcher called the finding "the clearest association with a particular microbe to date."

Although some connections between intestinal bacteria and rheumatoid arthritis have been made, researchers, including Veena Taneja, Ph.D., associate professor of immunology at Mayo Clinic, tell the Tribune more research is needed to figure out whether bacteria is a "cause or a consequence" of the disease. Dr. Taneja notes that rheumatoid arthritis "is known to have a strong genetic component," but environmental factors seem to play a role, as well. "The gut seems to be the common link," says Dr. Taneja, whose work at Mayo, the paper reports, "looks at whether bacteria can be manipulated to change the course of disease."

For now, researchers are looking at how to find a better balance of good and bad bacteria, and some suggest the best way to "alter gut flora" may be to make "permanent dietary and lifestyle changes," like those made by Seamus Mullen, a chef in New York City who tells the Tribune about changes he made after being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 2007. After other approaches failed, Mullen followed a "strict yearlong protocol" outlined by his physician. "It's not enough to say, 'Oh, I'll have some ginger today and some greens tomorrow,' and expect a turnaround in your health," he says. "To really see change, it requires a wholesale reboot of how you live your life."

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