Food intolerances, allergies, and gastrointestinal problems are some of the most prevalent nutrition issues we face today. While we know a lot more now than we did ten years ago, there is still work to be done. Specifically, there’s a lot we don’t know about what causes these problems.
Playing the Gut Guessing Game
Take irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, as an example. According to the Mayo Clinic, the definition of IBS is as follows:
[A] common disorder that affects the large intestine (colon). Irritable bowel syndrome commonly causes cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea and constipation. IBS is a chronic condition that you will need to manage long term.
Take note that the definition does not identify a cause. It simply states that you will have to deal with the symptoms for a long time. For most GI issues, the nutrition solution has been an elimination diet. FODMAPS, gluten, nightshades like peppers and tomatoes, and various other foods have been taken out and have shown encouraging results. Probiotics have also been popular as an additional measure to help symptoms.
We know more about some other conditions, such as Crohn’s disease, and blood tests for food intolerances are becoming increasingly more accurate. But they don’t tell the whole story, and they lack the ability to tell us exactly where in the gut the issue is. Other tests, like an endoscopy, can be invasive.
What if we could identify exactly where in the gut the problem is, and what exactly is causing it – all without removing any bodily fluids or tissue? Well, technology is almost there.
A pill may be the answer to identify why common foods like wheat, dairy, nuts, and shellfish cause gastrointestinal problems.
A recent article outlined a proof of concept for a pill that can measure how much gas is produced during digestion. In other words, you can eat a meal, take a pill, and monitor what happens as the meal is digested. The digestive tract naturally produces different gases. When we eat something that may not be tolerated, the digestive tract produces more of those gases, or a different ratio. This could indicate an altered bacteria spectrum in the gut, too much or too little fiber, poor digestion, impaired absorption, or some other abnormality in the body. This technology can trace exactly what food is causing the problem and where it’s happening in the digestion process.
Researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, developed the technology to be small enough to fit into a pill. The capsule itself is indigestible, so it just passes through the body. It has tiny membranes that can let gas in and out. Information about the type and amount of gas can be uploaded onto a computer in real time. It’s like sending a messenger with your food to give you updates on what’s going on.
The team demonstrated its usefulness and safety on an experiment with pigs. They chose pigs because their digestive tracts are similar to humans. The pigs would eat either a high- or low-fiber diet, and gases were measured using the capsules. To demonstrate its accuracy, the results were compared to previous data that used more invasive, but accurate, measuring tools. The different amounts of fiber have known effects on the gases produced; therefore, it was easy to compare the accuracy of the capsules. The test proved to be reliable, and no ill effects were noted.
Limitations and Future Directions
This technology could revolutionize the study of human digestion and help pave the way for new and more effective tools to combat irritable bowel syndrome and similar conditions. Instead of blindly taking a probiotic, or antibiotic for that matter, we can know exactly what we are dealing with.
As exciting as this technology sounds, it is still in preliminary stages. A library of reliable data would need to be created so that we can compare what is normal and what may be a problem. The pill also needs a way to track where in the body it is at every moment, perhaps via GPS or temperature sensors. While the authors did not mention price, my guess would be that as of now, it would be too expensive to use on a regular clinical basis. Personally, I wouldn’t be thrilled about using a capsule that has been used before.
Relief Is a Reality
But although this is preliminary technology, there is reason to get excited. We may be on the verge of eliminating the guessing game that is food intolerances and digestive disorders. Clinicians will be able to accurately tell us what exactly the cause is and where to treat it. Who knows – it may even become an app for your phone.
The paper referenced is a proof-of-concept study. This information will allow new studies to be performed and begin the process of getting the technology to the market. While it may take time, be on the lookout for new and improved ways to easily test for foods you should avoid without the headache of trial and error.
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1. Kourosh Kalantar-Zadeh, Chu K. Yao, Kyle J. Berean, Nam Ha, Jian Zhen Ou, Stephanie A. Ward, Naresh Pillai, Julian Hill, Jeremy J. Cottrell, Frank R. Dunshea, Chris Mcsweeney, Jane G. Muir, and Peter R. Gibson. “Intestinal Gas Capsules: A Proof-of-Concept Demonstration,” Gastroenterology 150 (2016): 37-39.
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