Probiotics and Mucus: A Relationship to Prevent Leaky Gut

Probiotics and mucus may not be the first combination you think of when you think about repairing a leaky gut, but their relationship to intestinal integrity is backed by numerous studies. The basic structure of the intestines involves layers of smooth muscle, connective tissue, epithelial cells and mucus. The mucus layer(s) is on the inside of the intestinal tract where intestinal contents and microbes exist.

Mucus may remind you of snot.

Snot…the word conjures up images of little kids running around with thick, green junk oozing from their nostrils. That was my experience when my kids were growing up. Their friends would come over with this nasty stuff hanging on their faces…ewwww…the thought is still so gross. You get the picture.

The word "snot" is usually reserved for nasal mucus only (or for a derogatory term for a disrespectful person) and I think it conveys an image better than the word "mucus". However, snot is a type of mucus, and in fact, mucus plays very important roles in your body in lining the mouth, nose, sinuses, throat, lungs and respiratory tract, eyes, female reproductive tract, and lower gastrointestinal tract. Some of these roles include:

  • Trapping unwanted substances
  • Acting as a lubricant to ease the passage of intestinal contents
  • Protecting sensitive tissues from drying out
  • Acting as a reservoir of antibodies, enzymes, and immune molecules that recognize and deal with invaders
  • Stabilizing drug absorption
  • Acting as a selective barrier
  • And even feeding some gut microbes

Mucus in different parts of your body, including your small and large intestines, is specialized to handle those different environments.

The mucus layer in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract is not fixed; it is constantly changing.  A constant state of flux is one thing gut probiotics and mucus have in common. Your body makes about 1-1.5 liters of mucus every day and you pass or swallow most of it without noticing. Without mucus, undesirable substances such as acids, and microbes such as pathogens, can contact the cells lining the GI tract causing immune reactions, disease, and infections. For instance, deterioration of the mucus layer in the colon and contact of bacteria with the colon cells is known to occur in ulcerative colitis (UC) patients with active disease.

It is important to protect the intestinal mucus you have and to facilitate the making of it without causing an imbalance that creates more problems. How? The combination of probiotics and mucus is a great place to start.

The Roles of Glycans, Probiotics and Mucus

Intestinal mucus is composed primarily of the gel-forming secreted mucin MUC2 protein synthesized by intestinal goblet cells. Mucin O-linked glycans (types of polysaccharides or long-chain sugars) account for up to 80% of the mucin protein's molecular weight, which shows that these glycans are important for mucus integrity. Phospholipids are the major fat component of mucus.

There are many ways mucus can be compromised with the mucus degrading faster than it can be replenished. Some of these broadly are:

  • If too many intestinal microbes, particularly pathogens, are feasting on the glycans or degrading proteins in mucus
  • If the goblet cells are not being given the signal to produce more mucus or are incapable of doing so
  • If the ingredients for mucus are not available

These scenarios can result in thinned mucus and priming for a pathogen attack and/or immune reaction. If the mucus is already sparse, enhancing the growth of more mucin-degrading microbes, and particularly pathogens, without balancing the mucus status is a recipe for disease. If mucus is already thin and disrupted, such as in active UC, finding ways to increase its production is beneficial. This is where the relationship between probiotics and mucus can help.

Bifidobacterium in general are known to control pathogen growth and survival, adhere to intestinal mucins, and modulate mucus production by goblet cells through SCFA (short-chain fatty acid) production and other metabolites, thereby maintaining a healthy mucus layer. Some degrade mucins, too. A balance is ideal. If we want to increase mucus production, which Bifidobacterium build up mucus production more than they degrade it?

Bifidobacterium dentium may be that microbe. A recently published mouse study on a strain of Bifidobacterium dentium, a human-derived species, showed that it increased intestinal mucus synthesis and expulsion, without extensive degradation of mucin glycans. It cannot grow on mucin glycans alone, so it has other food sources besides mucus.

How to Nurture Both Probiotics and Mucus

Since strain is important with microbes when citing specific studies, Bifidobacterium dentium ATCC 27678 is the strain that was studied. In studies published by the Human Microbiome Project Consortium, it was found in healthy adults at a relative abundance of 0.7%. Since I don't like to treat probiotics as drugs, unless they are specifically recognized as such, I don't suggest that you intentionally seek out ATCC 27678 as the sole source of your mucus-enhancement program. There are other variables involved in mucus health beyond one single microbe! Besides, in general, other bifidos enhance intestinal mucus production and health, too. In addition to the drug analogy, another reason to not solely use 27678 is that B. dentium Bd1, a bacterium very closely related to ATCC 27678, is associated with dental caries.

A better approach to nurture both probiotics and mucus is to look for ways to:

  • Increase gut levels of the B. dentium and other Bifidobacterium you already have and decrease pathogens
  • Provide your body with ways to boost intestinal mucus production and enhance mucus barrier properties
  • Provide stand-ins for intestinal mucus until your body begins to produce more
  • Decrease those things that decrease mucus production

Six Steps to Nurture Both Probiotics and Mucus

The ways to nurture probiotics and mucus can be broken down into six steps:

Step #1: Increase the bifidos! To increase the bifidos and decrease pathogens, eat real, whole plant foods. Bifidobacteria appreciate the complex fibers contained in whole foods and can utilize them to produce health-promoting metabolites, whereas refined sugars and refined carbs give pathogens an advantage. Additionally, the complex fibers will give bifidos something else to snack on besides your mucus and leave the mucus-eating to health-promoting, mucin specialists like Akkermansia muciniphila. Studies in rodents show that during chronic or intermittent dietary fiber deficiency, many gut microbiota species resort to eating mucus glycoproteins as a food source, leading to erosion of the colonic mucus barrier. Finally, a Western-style diet, high in unhealthy fats and sugar with little dietary fiber, leads to deterioration of the integrity of the colonic mucus layer in ways other than microbial mucus degradation.

You can also supplement with a probiotic supplement containing Bifidobacterium to increase the effects of the bifidos. Note that the bifidos are not the only probiotics that can increase mucin production, but they are a species that generally is known to be beneficial. A good overall supplement is DFH Probiotic Supreme DF found in my dispensary.

Step #2: To increase intestinal mucus production and enhance mucus barrier properties, increase the bifidos! As I mentioned, Bifidobacterium modulate mucus production and one of the ways they do this is through SCFA production. Nurture those little guys and other probiotics.

Step #3: Be sure you are hydrated and eat healthy fats. Mucus contains water and lipid (fat) molecules. 

Step #4: Increase nutritious sulfur-containing foods, like the cruciferous ones (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, bok choy, etc.) and garlic and onions. Sulfur is used in a signaling molecule that promotes mucosal defense, and the complex fibers in these foods will feed the helpful microbes like Bifidobacterium and other probiotics.

Step #5: Soothe your mucous membranes with mucus stand-ins.  Supplements with mucus-like properties and antioxidant activities may soothe your digestive tract while you work to balance your microbiome and produce more mucus. Food-grade aloe vera, DGL, slippery elm, and marshmallow root are examples. Three of my favorite products containing these for support of GI tract health and function are DaVinci G.I. Benefits powder, DFH GI Revive powder, and Pure Encapsulations DGL Plus capsules, all found in my dispensary.

Step #6: Decrease the things that decrease mucus production or affect a healthy mucus layer. Pathogens and parasites like Giardia play negative roles in intestinal mucus health. Stress is a big negative player one. Frankly, it is a big negative player for every health condition! Additionally, environmental pollutants (heavy metals, pesticides, and other persistent organic pollutants) and food additives (emulsifiers, nanomaterials) are other contributors to decreased healthy mucus. Limit your exposure as much as possible. 

It may not be sexy or trendy, but mucus really is a gut unrecognized hero! A solid relationship between the prevention of leaky gut with probiotics and mucus exists, so take advantage of the beneficial microbes by increasing their numbers and/or effects.

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