Immune systems work to rid the body of foreign agents that can cause disease. One's intestines contain a certain level of bacteria that help to digest food, but if the immune system recognizes them as invaders, the effects can be dire.

Four million Americans suffer from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), an autoimmune disorder where the immune system attacks one's colon and intestines and leads to high levels of inflammation and digestive difficulties. Often, as a result of the constant inflammation, the intestines will form fibroids, or masses of cells that try to reinforce the intestinal walls to protect from further immune attack. This fibrosis is driven by the chronic inflammation but does not always work as the body hopes it will. Frequently, fibroids in the intestines can lead to large amounts of scar tissue that prevent the intestines from being as elastic as they once were and can narrow them, making digestion and elimination difficult or impossible.

Fixing these digestive issues caused by IBD often requires surgery. But, what if the fibrosis was reversible?

A new study indicates that the presence alone of the microbes that the immune system wishes to attack will begin the bodily response that sparks fibrosis. Previous studies have shown that when intestinal microbes are sent to the liver by accident, fibrosis will begin there as well. However, once the microbes are sent away from the liver, dangerous fibrosis ceases.

The researchers attempted to kill off all of the gut bacteria with antibiotics, but this can lead to other health issues as well as a worsening of IBD symptoms. They found that some foods have the potential to block the receptors in the body that recognize benign gut bacteria as invaders. This can ease a lot of the inflammation that is characteristic of IBD. In the same way, easing the inflammation can prevent further fibrosis. Some of these foods include broccoli, cauliflower, and apples.

It is clear that there is some promise in altering one's diet to manage IBD. But while the blockage of inflammation will stop fibrosis, the condition can progress if some inflammation still occurs. The researchers hope that fibrosis in other organs can regress the way it does in the intestines, but researchers still believe that in spite of their finding, surgical management of fibroids must be employed in order to ensure the health of those with IBD.

Source: Rieder F. The Gut Microbiome in Intestinal Fibrosis: Environmental Protector or Provocateur?. Science Translational Medicine. 2013.