Multiple Sclerosis: Gut Check
Researchers are studying the gut and its relationship to MS. Yes, I know those of us who can stand to lose a few pounds do worse physically with those guts, but that’s not the idea they are exploring. Forget our brains – they are really looking into the gut, our digestive system in all its glory, to find if there is a connection between its health and our Multiple Sclerosis.
If you tend to be squeamish about anything with an ick factor, you might want to stop reading now. If you are like so many of us willing to consider anything for a cure to MS, then read on. You’ve been forewarned.
The gut, that stretch of intestine from our stomach to where it exits our digestive system at the anus, and its contents, are important to our health – ask anyone who suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or Crohn’s Disease and they can quickly tell you the importance of gut health. That health has to do with balance – hoping the good stuff in there is in control of eradicating or at least overwhelming the bad stuff. There are strong indicators there is a connection with gut health – having the right stuff in our system– and autoimmune diseases, and researchers in different parts of the world are looking closer to see if perhaps there is an MS connection hiding there as well.
The MS Discovery Forum reports that Dr. Sushrut Jangi, an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston presented his initial research on gut health and multiple sclerosis at the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) annual meeting. For this study they gathered fecal samples from 168 people with RRMS and 77 healthy controls for analysis and then narrowed their study group down to a smaller sampling. Through some additional screening processes, samples from 66 RRMS and 46 control participants were studied further and from these fecal samples they found several marked differences between people with MS and people living without this disease.
More than once I’ve told you I’m not the science whiz and I won’t attempt to tell you the technical terms for all these things that should be in our gut – but there are several different categories of microbes that should be doing their thing keeping our systems clean. The absence/decreased/increased levels of these essential microbes might lead to our systems being more receptive to autoimmune disease or even the severity of its course.
From their study, they believe that people who have helminths in their gut are much less likely to have autoimmune diseases such as MS. If you’re like me, I had to look up what a helminth is and find they are a wormlike parasite, and are commonly known among other things, as whipworms and hookworms. People with MS are lacking these helminths, which are believed to have an anti-inflammatory effect.
Why would we have fewer worm parasites than our healthy partners? They suspect that hygiene plays a role in this but are not yet sure and this isn’t to mean that those of us with MS are much cleaner than the average person. This would support the idea that our increase in cases of MS is an environmental problem. The researchers speculate that because of their increased exposure to these helminthes, there are much fewer cases of MS, asthma and other autoimmune diseases in under developed countries that don’t have the clean sanitary conditions we expect to find here in the US.
As I read this recent study, I remembered seeing a story many years ago on the evening news about a man who had severe allergies and traveled to Africa to walk barefoot about open latrines, hoping he would be infected with hookworms. It stuck with me because I was newly diagnosed at the time and they also talked about MS being treated with hookworms. A quick google search turned up a link to the story from 2009 and you can read an extensive interview with this man and learn more about his quest to be infected with hookworms for a cure to his allergies.
How do the scientists test these theories? It’s really pretty simple. People with MS were given oral solutions that contained these microbe parasites and were monitored for relapses and worsening of their disabilities. They were intentionally infected with human hookworms and whipworms and their conditions remained significantly better than those people with MS who weren’t given these worms to drink. These worms have a stable life and can live inside us for several years, but can also be easily eradicated with the appropriate antibiotic if there is a problem with them and they need to be removed from the gut.
Helminth therapy is being studied in a number of places worldwide for a variety of autoimmune disorders, and it appears promising but it is still in the early stages of investigation. We all know how easy it is to set off problems in our gut if we drink or eat too much or too differently but it is possible that knocking back a few cc’s of worms might have a positive effect on our MS and gut health.
We all say we would do almost anything to stop our MS, but would that include swallowing worms if this research holds up on further study?
Wishing you well,