A usually harmless fungus found in cheese, sausage, beer, wine, and other fermented foods may prevent intestinal ulcers from healing in people with Crohn’s disease.
The researchers behind the new study say their evidence is preliminary, so it is too soon to recommend dietary changes.
Antibiotic treatments in people may disrupt friendly gut bacteria, allowing the fungi to thrive.
If scientists can develop an oral antifungal, it could improve intestinal wound healing and reduce symptoms.
Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease that causes chronic inflammation of the gut, mainly in the small intestine.
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases report that more than half a million people in the United States have the condition.
In people with Crohn’s disease, minor injuries to the gut lining fail to heal properly. These ulcers cause abdominal pain, bleeding, and diarrhea, among other symptoms.
Researchers have now discovered that a common foodborne fungus colonizes the intestinal wounds in a mouse model of the disease and in humans.
Once established, the microbe appears to enhance inflammation and slow down wound healing.
The research, led by scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO, and the Cleveland Clinic, OH, has been published in the journal Science.
The fungus is a type of yeast called Debaryomyces hansenii that is often found in:
The fungus is harmless to people who are otherwise healthy, but it exploits a weakness in the intestinal lining of people with Crohn’s disease to penetrate the tissue.
First author Dr. Umang Jain, an instructor in pathology and immunology at the School of Medicine, explains:
“If you look at stool samples from healthy people, this fungus is highly abundant. It goes into your body and comes out again.
But people with Crohn’s disease have a defect in the intestinal barrier that enables the fungus to get into the tissue and survive there.
And then it makes itself at home in ulcers and sites of inflammation and prevents those areas from healing.”
Dr. Jain emphasizes that the research is preliminary and that patients should not stop eating cheese or processed meat.