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Gut Immunity
Are the Gut Microbes Immune Cells?

Majid Ali, M.D.


In the 1970s, based on a study of more than 4,500 colon and 1,100 stomach biopsies, I introduced the term “bowel ecology” and published several papers to describe how disruptions of this ecosystem set the stage for the development of chronic disease (see my CV on www.majidali.com for precise citations). The immune system is rooted in the soil of the bowel contents. This was one of the seven insights my microscopes and patients provided. It would take me over two decades to recognize that the bowel ecosystem, more than other ecosystem in the human body, serves well the Oxygen King of human biology to prevent disease and prolong life, or mis-serves it to cause chronic diseases and premature aging. This was another of my seven insights. I devoted my book Oxygen and Aging (2000) to this core notion.

Bowel’s Many Dr. Jekylls and Mr. Hydes

The bowel has microbes which produce toxins that directly poison oxygen-driven enzymes. The bowel is also populated by microbes that create ecologic conditions that sustain those enzymes. Some bugs in the gut are fattening and obesitizing, while others are defattening. Both groups play crucial roles in the energy economy of the body. Some microbial species are crucial for digestive-absorptive functions whereas others impede these functions. There are bowel bugs that strengthen the immune system and there are those that weaken it. Some species help us fight infections and others weaken our anti-microbial defenses. Some bacteria produce vitamins and good fatty acids, while many yeast produce mycotoxins that poison the liver. Some members of the bowel micobiota help keep the circulating blood clean and flowing, whereas others thicken the blood and cause the formation of microclots and micro-plaques. Some bowel bugs are anti-cancer while others produce carcinogens. Astute integrative physicians and laboratory scientists know well the profound clinical significance of these statements. Nearly all drugs completely ignore them.

If above statements are true—I summarize some recent and landmark research findings in support of them—then why don’t people insist that doctors use this knowledge to preserve health and prevent disease? Why don’t the discussions of oxygen dominate all media coverage of health issues? Why don’t journalists write articles about how disruptions of the bowel ecosystem cause various disease states and premature aging?

Lapdog Joes

The simple answer to the above question is: journalistic watch dogs have become journalistic lapdogs—lapdog Joes is the term I coined for them—and do not have the verve to do independent fact checking. When they do health articles, they call upon professors for materials. Most professors are on the take from drug monsters and willingly do the monsters’ bidding. Uncommonly, when professors in medical sciences are not directly on the take, they are too timid to challenge those who are.

Did you ever read an article in The New York Times about how chronic pain and muscle pain can be relieved by restoring bowel ecology? Do you remember an article in which The Washington Post explained how people with acne, eczema, or psoriasis can clear their skin by restoring bowel health? Or an article in Time magazine explaining how disturbances in the bowel sets the stage for inflammation in the lungs, joints, and prostate gland? Do you recall an extended program on C-Span in which a doctor showed how bowel toxicity produces microclots and micro-plaques in the circulating blood which stick to coronary arteries to cause heart attacks? Or a report on CNN about how the problems of mood, memory, or mentation can be ameliorated in many instances by controlling gut fermentation? In the fall of 2010, Alzheimer’s disease was the darling of TV and print media. I closely read many such articles but found no reference to bowel health. I might add that Alzheimer’s reports followed a powerful push by a company that its drug (Aricept) that proved to be ineffective at a smaller dose was effective at a dose nearly five times larger, and that another company had introduced a 100% accurate diagnostic test for the disease—a report that The New York Times was forced to retract six weeks later. Were there any links between these announcements and lapdog reports? The readers can guess for themselves.

Are Bowel Microbes Immune Cells of the Body?

The above question will raise many eyebrows. I myself never looked at bowel microbes in this light until I started writing this essay. In a flash, a large number of “bowel images” coalesced to form a complete kaleidoscopic mosaic in which bowel microbes were in the center stage, both in the development and sustenance of the defenses systems of the body. This is a vast kaleidoscope and I cite just one example of a species of bowel microbe called B. fragilis (Bacteroides fragilis) to illustrate my main point. The word fragilis in its name belies its functional diversity and resilience. The many ways in which this species preserves health, fights infections, and reverses chronic disease include: (1) production of specific sugars called ZPS that activates immune cells called CD4+ T cells; (2) correction of certain immune defects; (3) normalization of dysregulated systemic cytokine production (cytokine are molecular messengers); (4) generation of a family of health-promoting substances known as symbiosis factors; (5) prevention of allergy and asthma; and (6) control of disease-controlling microbes (which themselves also confer immunity against infections caused by themselves, a subject I address elsewhere).

LAPs and TAPs

In my book The Canary and Chronic Fatigue (1995), I described how one class of bowel flora called lactic acid producers—LAPs was the term I coined for them—preserve health by diverse roles, while another which I dubbed as toxic a producers (TAPs) cause disease by just as many mechanisms.

Bacteria Which Fatten, Bacteria Which De-fatten

On January 22, 2009, reserachers at Washington University, St. Louis published two landmark papers in the prestigious journal Nature, firmly linking obesity to population ratio of various members of bowel flora. Specifically, they focused on two major groups of bacteria: the Bacteroidetes and the Firmicutes, which together account for more than 90 percent of the bowel microbes of mice and humans. It was found that initially the obese mice and humans had larger populations of fattening species (Firmicutes) and smaller populations of de-fattening species (Bacteroidetes). As mice and humans lost weight with dietary changes, the de-fatters increased in numbers and the fatters decreased.

Gut Microbes Fight Infections

Bowel bacteria produce specific sugars called polysaccharides—“polysugars” for short—that stimulate B cells, one of the two major families of immune cells, to generate protective antibodies. The effectiveness of these defenses is markedly enhanced by the interaction between poly-sugars and B cell receptors (BCR), which recruits the other major family of immune cells called T-cells. This is how bowel bacteria gear up total immune defenses of the body against microbial infections.

LAPs Prevent Cancer,  TAPsCause It

The so-called “good” bowel microbes keep an eye of the “bad” microbes that produce cancer-causing toxins. Some species of LAPs (lactic acid producers), especially the strains of the Lactobacillus species, also possess anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer activities. One 2009 study demonstrated the protective anti-tumor and anti-cancer effects of some strains of these bacteria. Dietary use of these probiotics reduced the risks of certain types of cancers and suppressed other colonic tumors induced by various carcinogens. Some such microbes effectively reduced DNA damage (adduct formation). In addition, in some animals, LAPs inhibited liver, colon, bladder, and mammary tumors.

Suggested Readings

☛ Oxygen and Aging (2000) for additional information for the general readers.
☛ Darwin and Dysox Trilogy (2009), the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth volumes of The Principles and Practice of Integrative Medicine. 

 

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