Phytoestrogen and specific gut bacteria may hold key to MS treatment

Multiple sclerosis, a debilitating autoimmune disease, is associated with the absence of specific gut bacteria often found in other people. These same bacteria are responsible for breaking down a type of plant compound called isoflavone, which is a phytoestrogen found in some plant foods like soybeans. The combination of the two — isoflavones and the gut bacteria that breaks them down — may have a role in treating and protecting against MS.

The new study comes from the University of Iowa, where researchers used mice to investigate gut bacteria, isoflavones, and the role they play in multiple sclerosis. Past research has found that people who suffer from MS lack specific gut bacteria that is found in people who don't have the disease. This makes gut bacteria a possible environmental factor that may play a role in the disease.

Using a mouse model of multiple sclerosis, the researchers behind this latest study found that the missing gut bacteria can suppress inflammation. The scientists compared the effects of a diet free from isoflavones and one rich with isoflavones, finding that mice fed the plant compounds experienced protective effects against the disease.

The key to this benefit, however, was the gut bacteria that can metabolize isoflavones. When the scientists removed this bacteria, the mice fed an isoflavone diet didn't experience the same protective benefits, indicating that gut bacteria may play an important role in the disease and treatment of it. This new study joins another that linked eating fermented foods to increase gut bacteria diversity resulted in lowered inflammation.

Summing up the new study, its lead researcher Ashutosh Mangalam, Ph.D., said:

Interestingly, previous human studies have demonstrated that patients with multiple sclerosis lack these bacteria compared to individuals without MS. Our new study provides evidence that the combination of dietary isoflavones and these isoflavone metabolizing gut bacteria may serve as a potential treatment for MS.