Rheumatoid Arthritis Drug Can Repair Your Leaky Gut, Study Finds

mbg Editorial Assistant By Abby Moore
mbg Editorial Assistant
Abby Moore is an Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.

Image by LaylaBird / iStock

Nearly one million people in the U.S. are living with the chronic inflammatory bowel disease called ulcerative colitis. The majority of the affected also experience symptoms of leaky gut, which exacerbates inflammation in the intestines. While there is medication to manage ulcerative colitis, the lack of understanding around leaky gut has left it untreatable by pharmaceuticals. Until now.

A study published in the journal Inflammatory Bowel Diseases found that an FDA-approved drug (tofacitinib aka Xeljanz) commonly used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis can also treat leaky gut.

How did they discover this?

Scientists from the University of California–Riverside took samples of human epithelial cells that were damaged from inflammation and observed the effects that tofacitinib had on them. What they found was that the drug improved epithelial barrier functioning, which is vital for mucosal healing—an integral part of ulcerative colitis treatment.

Prior to this research, scientists were confident that the drug helped with ulcerative colitis but didn't quite understand how it was effective. "We now understand where in the gut this drug is working and how," said lead author of the study Declan McCole, Ph.D.

The epithelial cells are essentially pores within the small intestines. They are selectively permeable and serve as a line of defense against foreign substances. When healthy, those pores take in nutrients from food and keep out pathogens, viruses, or large food particles. When a person has leaky gut, though, those pores become stretched (aka more permeable), allowing the unwanted objects to float through the intestine and into the bloodstream.

Scientists found that the drug fixes the leakiness within the intestinal barrier and, more specifically, it fixes the intestinal epithelial permeability defects caused by a cytokine called interferon-gamma. This same cytokine is active in inflammatory diseases like—you guessed it—ulcerative colitis and rheumatoid arthritis.

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Why does this matter?

An unhealthy gut microbiome can have serious effects on brain function, skin health, and mental health. The symptoms of leaky gut and other inflammatory bowel diseases are also downright painful. Understanding the effects and functions of this drug can help create better treatment options.

While this drug has been treating rheumatoid arthritis since 2012 and ulcerative colitis since 2018, researchers had little understanding of why it was effective. The new information can help doctors determine which patients are more likely to benefit from its use. 

If you're currently suffering from leaky gut or ulcerative colitis, try reducing the effects with this diet, and be sure to get plenty of sleep.

Ready to learn how to fight inflammation and address autoimmune disease through the power of food? Join our 5-Day Inflammation Video Summit with mindbodygreen’s top doctors.

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