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High-sugar diet can increase severity of colitis symptoms, study finds

Experts worry about how certain foods could damage consumers’ gut health

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While sugar tends to be the first thing consumers cut out when making healthier choices, recent studies have found that too much sugar can have a negative effect on consumers’ lifespans

Now, researchers from UT Southwestern Medical Center have found that diets high in sugar can be particularly detrimental to consumers with colitis. According to their findings, consuming large quantities of sugary foods can not only worsen colitis symptoms, but it can also lead to lasting gut damage. 

“Colitis is a major public health problem in the U.S. and in other countries,” said researcher Hasan Zaki, PhD. “This is very important from a public health point of view.” 

Choosing the right foods 

The researchers conducted their study on mice to better understand how sugary foods can affect colitis symptoms and overall gut health. The mice were either already diagnosed with colitis when the study began, or were induced with colitis via a drug, and were fed a diet with three different types of sugars -- glucose, sucrose, and fructose -- for one week. Additionally, the researchers analyzed their intestinal bacteria both before the sugar-heavy diet and after, to determine what long-term effects it could have on their gut health. 

At the end of the week, the researchers observed that the mice’s colitis symptoms had worsened since the start of the high-sugar diets. In terms of gut health, the study revealed that high sugar consumption changed the bacterial make-up of the mice’s guts, which can ultimately lead to inflammation in the intestines. 

The researchers also discovered that the mucus layer of the gut, which serves as a protective barrier, had thinned following the high-sugar diet, which can also leave the mice susceptible to gut damage. 

“The mucus layer protects intestinal mucosal tissue from infiltration of gut microbiota,” the researchers wrote. “Higher abundance of mucus-degrading bacteria, including Akkermansia muciniphila and Bacteroides fragilis, in glucose-treated mice is, therefore, a potential risk for the intestinal mucus barrier. 

“Due to the erosion of the mucus layer, gut bacteria were in close proximity with the epithelial layer of the large intestine in glucose-treated mice. Breaching of the epithelial layer is the key initiating event of intestinal inflammation,” the researchers noted. 

As more and more consumers are struggling with colitis -- including young people, the researchers hope that these findings highlight the critical role that diet plays in colitis symptoms and gut health. 

“Our study clearly shows that you really have to mind your food,” Dr. Zaki said. 

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