The concept that ‘food is medicine’ is growing like wild kudzu through the medical world, prompting more and more research like this study on how diet can affect diarrheal infections. This is more than just the “BRAT” diet of bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast after the diarrhea has passed, meant to allow your intestines to ease back into digestion. Researchers noted that the diet of the lab mice could affect whether the mice succumbed to the infection or developed immunity to it.
Countless pages of other research findings have supported the fact that imbalances in normal gut bacteria can affect the risk of other harmful bacteria taking hold. Research has also shown that good bacteria help prepare the GI immune system for the coming bad guys. In this case, however, the determining factor was the amount of iron in the diet. That’s right, a high iron diet during the time when the mice were exposed to the potentially infective bacteria prevented the infection.
We know that many people can walk around with pathogenic (disease causing) bacteria in their guts without having any infections. In those individuals, a sort of symbiotic relationship develops based on genetics, what other bacteria are present, how much bacteria is present to start, and possibly diet. While this is good for that person, these unaffected carriers can spread the infection to others. This can happen with bacteria like salmonella, yeast like candida, and parasites like giardia.
In this study, the high iron diet appeared to offer sufficient nutrients to the E. coli bacteria that they did not invade further into the body. While normally the E. coli could cause lots of diarrhea, in these mice, no symptoms developed. The effect could also last past the initial bacterial exposure if the adaptive immune system was working. This part of the immune system remembers the bacteria and uses antibodies to defend against the future attempts at invasion. In a sense, by overcoming the first attempted invasion by E. coli with a high iron diet, they were “vaccinated” against future infections.
Normally, I would follow this interesting news with guidance on how to implement such findings now while we wait for more research. In this case, I would wait for more research to actually take place in humans. In some cases, a high iron diet could be harmful if someone has hemochromatosis or has an infection that is worsened by iron. Much more needs to be elucidated concerning dosing and timing of the iron. Helping our patients restore healthier more abundant lives sometimes includes telling our patients “not yet” or “not a good idea” with some news and some therapies.
Grischa Y. Chen, Natalia R. Thorup, Abigail J. Miller, Yao-Cheng Li, Janelle S. Ayres. Cooperation between physiological defenses and immune resistance produces asymptomatic carriage of a lethal bacterial pathogen. Science Advances, 2023; 9 (25) DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adg8719
Thanks to Science Daily:
Salk Institute. “All the immunity, none of the symptoms.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 23 June 2023. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/06/230623161139.htm>.
Sanctuary Functional Medicine, under the direction of Dr Eric Potter, IFMCP MD, provides functional medicine services to Nashville, Middle Tennessee and beyond. We frequently treat patients from Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, and more... offering the hope of healthier more abundant lives to those with chronic illness.