Gut infections may increase people’s risk of chronic symptoms

Scientists aren't sure exactly why but for some unlucky people, their IBS began after a bout of a gastrointestinal infection (GI). In fact, those who contracted traveler’s diarrhea, food poisoning, or gastroenteritis are six times more likely to develop IBS. This fact comes from a review of multiple peer-reviewed studies, also known as a meta-analysis.

Recent discoveries have given scientists a better idea of how this happens. Inflammation is the body’s way of responding to an infection. A certain amount of inflammation can help the body ward off serious illnesses. Too much can cause lasting harm, according to scientists at the Rockefeller University Laboratory of Mucosal Immunology. They found that inflammation as a result of an infection in the GI tract can prompt neurons in the intestines to undergo a form of cell death.

It's not yet clear exactly how inflammation causes gut neurons to commit cell suicide, but the scientists have also discovered clues that suggest it might be possible to stop the process from occurring. They believe that a specialized set of gut immune cells, known as muscularis macrophages, can come to the neurons' aid during an infection. If it could stop or restore the neurons from dying, it could also reduce one’s risk of developing IBS symptoms.

In other experiments, these same researchers found that food poisoning caused by Salmonella alters the community of microbes within the gut of mice. When they restored the animals' intestinal flora back to normal, the neurons recovered.

As they get closer to identifying the actual cause of cell death from a gut infection, it might be possible to someday develop new treatments for IBS, by perhaps:

  • Finding a way to stop gut neurons from committing suicide

  • Restoring gut microbial communities

  • Triggering the body to engage in short-term stress to protect the gut neurons