Body may produce food for gut flora

By Tom Nordlie • Published: February 12th, 2015
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

People often think of bacteria as something we’d rather not have in our bodies, but there’s one place we actually need them — in the digestive system.

Trillions of bacteria live in our intestines, mostly in the colon.

Collectively, these bacteria are known as gut flora. It’s believed that hundreds of species dwell within us, but only a few dozen of those species are present in large quantities.

Gut flora help us digest food, fight off harmful pathogens and perform other functions that keep us healthy.

A study published recently in the journal Nature sheds new light on the importance of these beneficial bacteria. It appears that our bodies may actually produce nutrients to sustain the gut flora when we’re sick and not eating much food.

Researchers found that when mice were deprived of food and injected with a compound that induced mild illness, cells lining the small intestine responded by producing protein molecules with a chemical structure that included a type of sugar known as L-fucose [ell-FYOO-cose].

This sugar is normally absent from the cells lining the small intestines in mice, and mice are unable to digest it.

However, gut flora are able to free up L-fucose from the protein molecules and consume it.

The mice recovered weight quickly — more quickly, in fact, than another group of mice that was given the same sickness-inducing compound but lacked a gene that controls production of L-fucose.

The results don’t prove that the same thing happens in humans, of course. But that possibility should be investigated.

What’s more, the findings may be important to research on Crohn’s disease, which is linked to a malfunctioning gene that normally promotes L-fucose production.

So, perhaps the human body doesn’t just rely on gut flora for its survival … maybe sometimes it repays the favor.