By Allison Dostal, PhD

Gastrointestinal problems are one of the most common unpleasant issues that we all experience at some time or another. But what if your upset stomach wasn’t just a passing discomfort? What if severe abdominal pain, cramping, fatigue, and diarrhea became more of your norm and less of a passing annoyance? For more than 1.4 million Americans, these symptoms typify their experience with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a disorder characterized by chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The specific cause (or causes) of IBD remain unknown, but one leading hypothesis is that the bacteria that inhabit our GI system – termed the gut microbiome – play a central role. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at this condition and highlight research aimed at elucidating the impact of the microbiome in IBD development, progression, and treatment.

Characteristics, Diagnosis, and Treatment of IBD

Inflammatory bowel disease is unique in that its symptoms vary from person to person, and an individual’s own experience with their condition can differ markedly from another affected person. Most people are diagnosed with one of the two most common types of IBD, which are ulcerative colitis (UC) and Crohn’s disease (CD). The primary distinguishing factor between the subtypes is that in UC, symptoms are limited to the colon. In contrast, any part of the GI tract – from the mouth to the anus – can be affected in CD. In addition, UC only involves the innermost layer of the colon, while CD can extend deeper into the cell layers of the GI tract. Lastly, in CD, the inflammation can “skip”, leaving normal areas between patches of affected GI tract.

Making a clear IBD diagnosis isn’t always as easy as meeting – or not meeting – these criteria. There is no gold standard available for a clear-cut diagnosis, and 5-15% of cases do not meet strict criteria for either UC or CD. These patients fall into the “IBD type unclassified” (IBDU) group. And in up to 14% of patients, the diagnosis changes over time. Despite the difficulty in specific diagnosis, all subtypes of IBD have one strong feature in common: an abnormal response by the body’s immune system. The immune system is composed of various cells and proteins that usually protect our bodies from infection. However, in people suffering from IBD, the immune system reacts inappropriately, and mistakes benign or beneficial cells and bacteria for harmful foreign substances. When this happens, the immune system produces an inflammatory response within the GI tract and produces the symptoms of IBD. This adverse reaction is termed a “flare”, and can result in symptoms such as abdominal pain and cramping, diarrhea, fever, and blood in the stool. People with IBD often have deficiencies in vitamins, minerals and macronutrients stemming from loss of appetite, reduced food intake, and malabsorption from the GI tract. The lack of nutrients can lead to worsening of symptoms or development of new complications.

Treatment for IBD is centered around two goals: achievement of remission and prevention of flares. Anti-inflammatory drugs such as aminosalicylates and antibiotics are often the first line of treatment, and can be followed by corticosteroids, immunomodulators, and/or biologic agents. In severe cases, removal of the affected part of the GI tract is needed if a patient is not responsive to other treatments.

The Role of the Microbiome in IBD

In recent years, it has become clear that the microbes in our gut have a key role in IBD, but the bacteria involved and their associated functions remain largely unknown. An imbalance of the normal gut bactera due to loss or overabundance of certain species is important in the persistence of the inflammatory responses seen in IBD. The role of the gut microbiota in IBD pathogenesis has been demonstrated by studies showing that antibiotic use can reduce or prevent inflammation – antibiotics work by reducing the number and types of bacteria found in the gut, therefore killing microbes that are causing IBD symptoms. Also, results from studies with UC patients who underwent a transfer of stool collected from healthy donors – called a fecal microbiota transplant – had notable disease remission. However, results have not been consistent between studies, due to differences in populations studied, official diagnosis, treatment methods and doses, and methods of assessing study endpoints. Therefore, no consensus on the microbiome’s relationship to IBD has been reached.

Research Endeavors

As you can imagine, the combination of unpleasant, potentially severe symptoms and an uncertain diagnosis or treatment can result in significant stress on IBD sufferers, their caregivers, and health care providers. The scientific efforts dedicated to identifying causes and cures for IBD have rapidly expanded in recent years due to advances in technology that allow researchers to work toward refining a clear diagnosis, map specific gut bacteria associated with disease development and symptoms, and identify defined targets for therapy. One of these initiatives is the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA) Microbiome Initiative, which is dedicated to understanding the role of the gut microbes in IBD, IBD families, and disease flares. Thus far, there are 7 active projects and 30 published manuscripts stemming from the Initiative, which have determined that different subsets of IBD are characterized by signature bacterial compositions and that people carrying different IBD genes have different microbiome compositions, among other accomplishments.

Other organizations are also supporting IBD research endeavors, including the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, whose Innovator Awards program provides $100,000 grants for one-year research projects conducted at non-profit research institutions, and the NIH’s Human Microbiome Project, which has funded several projects aimed at genetic and metabolomic elucidation of risk for Crohn’s disease. Several randomized trials are ongoing at this time, and their results will inform future directions for diagnosis, treatment, and eventual resolution of IBD.

References

Borody TJ, Warren EF, Leis SM, Surace R, Ashman O, Siarakas S. Bacteriotherapy using fecal flora: toying with human motions. J Clin Gastroenterol.2004;38(6):475–483.

Bull MJ, Plummer NT. Part 1: The Human Gut Microbiome in Health and Disease. Integr Med. 2014 Dec; 13(6):17-22.

Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America:http://www.ccfa.org/

Swidsinski A, Weber J, Loening-Baucke V, Hale LP, Lochs H. Spatial organization and composition of the mucosal flora in patients with inflammatory bowel disease.J Clin Microbiol. 2005;43(7):3380–3389.

Tontini GE, Vecchi M, Pastorelli L, Neurath MF, Neumann H. Differential diagnosis in inflammatory bowel disease colitis: state of the art and future perspectives. World J Gastroenterol. 2015 Jan 7;21(1):21-46.

By Emma Partridge

Dietary tracking applications (apps) have become quite sophisticated over the years, moving from manual entering of a food and portion to using barcode scanners to identify brand name products and return nutritional content information based on an entered portion. However refined these apps have become, their most poignant issue may not lie in the accuracy of the nutritional content information returned, but in the accuracy of the user’s portion estimation. An analysis of misreporting on National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) between 2003 and 2012 published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that under-reporting of energy intake was most prevalent in US adults 20 years or older. Specifically likely to under-report were women and overweight or obese subjects.1 The reality that under-reporting, conscious or subconscious, can happen in any subjective food recording process leads to questioning whether these types of apps are actually successful in their dietary tracking abilities, especially for overweight or obese people tracking their diets in attempts to lose weight. In a randomized control trial conducted at the Duke University Medical Center and published in Obesity, researchers found that overweight and obese young adults (18-35 years) were no more likely to lose weight using a smartphone app than the control group, who did not undergo any weight loss or health intervention.2 If we can reasonably determine that smartphone apps where one enters their food intake or receives social support don’t help the majority of overweight or obese people lose the weight they’re aiming to, how can this be improved? The latest technologies coming into play are image-assisted apps that allow users to submit photos of their meals then receive nutritional content based on the food and the portion size. Apps such as MealLogger allow the user to submit a photo of their meal, choose their portion size, and post the photo for others to view. While this form of social photo-sharing may skew users to acceptable portioning by social pressure, the user’s ability to choose their portion size still introduces under-reporting bias. Other apps rely on objective, but far broader, methods of extrapolating nutritional content from a food photo. Apps like MealSnap allow users to submit photos of their meal to have the MealSnap system “auto-magically detect the nutritional breakdown” of the meal, according to their Microsoft.com page. While this calorie estimate is likely rougher than one where users choose their portion, it is also objective and prevents under-reporting bias. Apps with more user input may fall victim to inaccuracies from under-reporting, while apps that avoid biased reporting may sacrifice accuracy for objectivity.  To correct this, future technologies must undoubtedly continue to move toward a goal of improved accuracy and usability. Likely, these technologies will move toward advanced imaging, as imaging, finding ways to take in the real food, rather than relying on the user’s input.  The future of image-assisted food technology will determine how close inventors and researchers can get to exact measurement of food and portion while maintaining accurate extraction of nutritional content. I, for one, am excited to see where it leads.

1.Murakami K, Livingstone MBE. Prevalence and characteristics of misreporting of energy intake in US adults: NHANES 2003-2012. British Journal of Nutrition. 2015;114(8):1294-1303.
2.Svetkey LP, Batch BC, Lin PH, et al. Cell phone intervention for you (CITY): A randomized, controlled trial of behavioral weight loss intervention for young adults using mobile technology. Obesity. 2015;23(11):2133-2141.

By Emily Roberts

The Mediterranean Diet is based on the eating patterns in the Mediterranean region and focuses on fruits, vegetables, fish, whole grains and healthy fats (1).  A diet not invented, but discovered, is now recognized as one of the healthiest dietary patterns (2). UNESO defines it as “a social practice based on all the “savoir-faire”, knowledge, traditions ranging from the landscape to the table and covering the Mediterranean Basin, cultures, harvesting, fishing, conservation, processing, preparation, cooking and in particular the way we consume” (3). The Mediterranean region is considered the Mediterranean Basin that borders the Mediterranean Sea and includes parts of seven countries: France, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Greece, Malta and Cyprus (4). There have been foreseen health benefits of consuming this diet, classifying it as “heart healthy” due to its likelihood to reduce the risk for heart disease (5,6). Living on the southern coast of France, I not only experience the Mediterranean lifestyle, but I have the opportunity to consume a Mediterranean Diet.

The Discovery

The Mediterranean Diet was discovered to have particular health benefits by Ancel Keys of the University of Minnesota in the 1950’s. He happened upon this discovery while studying the health of poor populations in Southern Italy in comparison to the wealthy in New York. He found the Italian populations had lower levels of cholesterol and a low rate of coronary heart disease (1).

Typical Foods

The diet is full of fresh foods including fruits, vegetables, herbs, fish, olive oil, breads, nuts and pastas (1). There is a very low consumption of red meats, poultry, butter, refined grains and processed foods. The diet is rich in fiber, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, antioxidant compounds, and essential vitamins and minerals; conversely, it is very low in saturated fats. Given the diet’s composition of nutrient dense foods, strong adherence to this diet is associated with improved nutritional adequacy (2).

The Benefits

A strong adherence to the Mediterranean Diet enhances the chances of improving your health status. It has been found to reduce the risk for mortality, especially due to cardiovascular disease (7). There have been many cohort studies conducted in the Mediterranean Basin often showing good adherence to the diet and resulting in reduced incidence for cardiovascular events (6). The benefits of the diet are likely to improve with physical activity as well, such as decreased blood levels of LDL (1).

My observations

During my time in the south of France I have noticed the influence the agriculture and natural resources of the Mediterranean Basin has on the cuisine. This area is rich in olive groves, offering a plentiful supply of fresh olive products. The sea offers fresh fish, shellfish and other seafood, while local markets sell fresh fruits and vegetables. Cattle farms are not as populous in this area, so the consumption of red meat and butter is not as high as other European regions (such as Northern France). However, considering I am still residing in France, pastries, baguettes, and of course cheese are a typical part of the French dietary meal pattern. This differentiates my diet somewhat from other Mediterranean regions. Thankfully, walking as a means of transport is very common if not necessary, offering an efficient form of daily exercise. Fresh and homemade are the two words that best describe home cooking near the Mediterranean.  While residing with a local French family, I ate many freshly prepared meals. Everything made from scratch from salad dressings to whole grain bread.

The Mediterranean Diet is not an effort, rather a daily practice for many Europeans. As Americans, we may recommend it as a diet intervention or integrate it into our own eating habits for health reasons. This diet is seen to be successful by offering significant health benefits. This encourages me to try various diets from around the world that could potentially provide various health benefits for Americans, as well as a taste of a new culture.

1.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3684452/

3.La DiÈte MÉditerranÉenne 2010. Candidature transnationale en vue de l’inscription sur la Liste ReprÉsentative du Patrimoine Culturel ImmatÉriel de l’HumanitÉ. Espagne / GrÈce / Italie/Maroc, Version Informations Additionnelles.

By Mary Scourboutakos

Living in Canada, I was never worried about recombinant bovine somatotropin hormone, aka rBST. This synthetic hormone, which mimics a natural hormone that causes cows to produce more milk, was banned in Canada in the 1990s. So North of the 49th parallel, most people have never heard of it.

Meanwhile in the United States, the situation is a little different. rBST is legal in the US because technically, there’s no evidence that it causes harm to humans. Meanwhile in Canada, the rationale for its ban is that it may pose risks for the cows that are treated with it.

With that in mind, whenever I visit the US, I always explore the milk on grocery store shelves to see if it contains rBST. To my surprise, on nearly every occasion, I’ve been hard pressed to find a jug of milk that didn’t say “from cows not treated with rBST”.

This was reassuring. But then I noticed something…while every jug of milk said “no rBST” I couldn’t find a single block of cheese, or container of yogurt declaring this.

This got me thinking…are they using the rBST-treated milk in yogurt and cheese? Could it be that consumers are so far removed from the food chain that they would think to look for “no rBST” on their milk, but wouldn’t think to look for it on their cheese?

It didn’t make sense…were the labels missing? Or was the industry using rBST milk in places where people would be less likely to look for it? I wanted to get to the bottom of this, so I started asking people about it. No one really knew the answer until I spoke with a representative from the food industry who told me that it takes so much effort to change labels, the industry won’t label something unless there is extremely consumer demand. She predicted that the yogurts and cheese are probably made with rBST-free milk, they’re just not advertising it.

Lo and behold, after doing some reading I found that in fact, many brands have removed rBST from ALL of their products, they’re just not stating it on their label, or they’re doing so haphazardly on some products but not others.

Perhaps I’m an over informed consumer who is paying attention to details that nearly no one else even knows or cares about, nevertheless, it’s interesting to consider that a product could in fact be potentially healthier—or at least kinder to the animal it’s coming from—than expected. I guess sometimes the food industry doesn’t show off everything it could.