Cause of Rheumatoid Arthritis May Be Bacteria in the Gut

Patient Expert

The cause of rheumatoid arthritis is not known, but recent studies offer intriguing insight that it may be related to a micro-bacteria in the gut, The Atlantic reports.

We first told you of this new theory back in 2011 and since then, researchers have increasingly focused on trying to understand how microbacteria affect your general health and what role it may play in the development of rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases.

Bacteria in Your Gut

The microbiome is the term used for the one to three pounds of microbes up to one thousand species that live in your gastrointestinal tract. There is a growing body of evidence supporting the theory that the gastrointestinal microbacteria are important players in our health. Some may be responsible for triggering chronic illnesses such as RA, while others may help protect against such conditions.

Evidence comes from studies of microbacteria in mice bred to be genetically predisposed to having RA. In one such study, the mice that were more susceptible to the disease had significant amounts of the Clostridium bacteria family. In mice that were not susceptible to RA, this type of bacteria was rare, while other strains were more dominant. Other families of bacteria have also been implicated.

Next Steps

While many researchers believe the evidence supports the link between microbacteria and arthritis, the exact role and dynamic that leads to the development of autoimmune diseases such as RA is still not known. Much more research is necessary and given the intriguing findings, it's a safe bet that many scientists will be immersed in this subject for years.

Researchers are already starting to theorize about the potential implications for treatment of RA. Jose Scher, a rheumatologist at New York University, believes that it may some day be possible to treat RA by adjusting the microbiome, for instance by changing your diet. There is evidence that using the Mediterranean diet or being vegan may help improve RA symptoms. Although it is not known why these types of diets may help, a recent Finnish study showed that a vegan diet changes the microbiome in the got.

Some researchers are looking at specific bacteria as potentially being used as treatment, in the near future moving from mice to human studies to investigate this option. Still others are looking more closely not on the bacteria themselves, but on the compounds they produce.

My Take

This is fascinating and very promising research. Finding out more about how RA develops (its pathogenesis) will have a huge impact on our ability to treat or perhaps even prevent this disease. It's important to keep in mind, though, that there is still a long way to go in this research. Scientists believe that we may see the current studies of bacteria leading to new treatment options in 10 to 15 years.

Lene writes the award-winning blog The Seated View. She's the author ofYour Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain.