Your gut bacteria have been linked to many aspects of your body's health. They play a major role in the production of certain vitamins, they can affect an individual's risk of obesity, and can even indicate if an infant will have food allergies later in life. The gut microbiome is clearly an important factor in health, and adding to this growing body of evidence, researchers have now found that dramatic changes occur in these microbes after someone suffers a severe burn.
One family of bacteria was of particular interest: Enterobacteriaceae, which includes many potentially harmful pathogens such as Salmonella and E. coli, as well as other harmless symbionts. The levels of this family of bacteria were found to be dramatically elevated in people with severe burns compared with those with milder burns. There was also found to be a corresponding decrease in the beneficial bacteria that normally keep these less-friendly ones under control.
In severely burned patients, Enterobacteriaceae accounted for an average of 31.9% of the bacteria found in the gut microbiome. This figure is extremely shocking when compared with the percentage of Enterobacteriaceae found in the patients with minor burns: only 0.5%. A minor burn was categorized as covering less than 10% of the body and severe burns were those that covered more than 20% with the patient suffering loss of both the upper and lower layers of skin. These findings, discovered by scientists from the Loyola University Chicago Health Sciences Division, were published in PLOS ONE.
This severe imbalance puts burn victims at a much higher risk of infection while they are recovering. In fact, 75% of all deaths in patients with severe burns are from sepsis and other infections. The risk is mostly thought to be a result of the open wound letting bacteria into the body, but the bacterial imbalance in the gut is likely to be another contributing factor.
The change in bacterial ratios in the gut is likely to be due to alterations in the intestinal walls after a severe burn: it has been shown that the permeability of the gut increases following such injuries. The weakened walls of the gut make it easier for bacteria, normally confined to the intestines, to relocate to other parts of the body, putting the latter at risk of infection. This, on top of the spike in potentially harmful bacteria, makes it quite a challenge for the body to protect itself.
These observations were made by examining fecal samples from four severely burned patients as well as a control group of eight patients who had only suffered minor burns. The fecal samples were taken 5 to 17 days after the burn injuries occurred so that changes in the microbiome had sufficient time to take place.
The initial results are already extremely insightful in choosing a direction to search for potential remedies. One possible route would be to administer probiotics to patients to restore "normal" levels of Enterobacteriaceae. It would be fantastic if this research could lead to a way of reducing infectious complications in burn victims.