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Gut Instincts

Posted on March 1, 2019

Bacteria in the intestines play a critical role in keeping you healthy, but when these bacteria become unbalanced, they can cause health problems, including rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and type 1 diabetes.

A recent study reveals that increased levels of a specific bacteria may also contribute to the development of systemic lupus erythematosus, also known as lupus or SLE.

Lupus is an autoimmune condition caused when the immune system sees the tissues of the body as foreign invaders and attacks them. Lupus affects many parts of the body, including the joints, kidneys, heart and brain.

While lupus can affect both genders, women have a 90 percent greater chance than men of developing the condition. Most people develop the disease between ages 15 and 45.

People living with lupus experience pain in the muscles, pain in the chest when breathing, fatigue, anemia and fever, ulcers or dryness in the mouth, rashes, hair loss, depression and anxiety, and light sensitivity. Some individuals also experience cognitive impairment and mental deterioration.

During the study, researchers found that 61 women living with lupus had higher amounts of a gut bacterium known as Ruminococcus gnavus compared to 17 women who did not have the condition.

The bacterium was present in the healthy women, too, but at much lower levels.

Lupus is a condition that cycles between remission and flaring.

“Some patients may live without symptoms for months or years while in remission. Then they can have a flare or multiple flares,” said Dr. Joel Singer, a New York personal cell physician.

The research found that the levels of R. gnavus in the women living with lupus increased in the gut during flares as a result of the condition. Blood tests also showed that immune system proteins called antibodies also increased in the gut at the time. These antibodies bind to the bacterium in the gut to prevent damage.

The study authors cautioned that definitive conclusions cannot be made between an overgrowth of R. gnavus bacteria and the cause of lupus, nor is it known whether the disease causes the bacterium to grow in the gut.

Another research study found that another intestinal bacterium, Lactobacillus reuteri, worsened lupus symptoms in mice.

Interestingly enough, this particular bacterium is promoted as a probiotic for gut health.

The authors of that study believe more than one bacterium plays a role in the development of lupus, and different bacteria have different impacts.

One potential treatment considered by researchers studying gut bacteria and its connection to lupus is to use antibiotics, but at the consequences of eliminating good bacteria, too – which could create additional complications.

“The biome of the intestines can be difficult to manage, and one slight change can cause unintended side effects,” Singer said.

Researchers at Yale University may have a viable alternative to antibiotics: a vaccine against a bacterium that has been linked to lupus in mice. The benefit of using a vaccine is that it trains the immune system to fight off one particular bacterium and disregard other bacteria.

Other options lupus researchers are exploring include the use of probiotics and fecal transplants, a procedure in which gut bacteria are transferred from a healthy donor to a person with lupus.

There is no current cure for lupus, although its symptoms are manageable for some individuals with medications and behavioral changes such as diet, exercise and avoiding stress.

According to the Lupus Foundation of America, there 1.5 million Americans and at least 5 million people worldwide living with a form of lupus.


The Lupus Foundation of America. Lupus Facts and Statistics. 2019. 

Heathline News. How Gut Bacteria May Be Linked to Lupus. 19 February 2019. 


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