Research Brief: Diet Type Can Increase Potentially Harmful Gas in the Gut

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Photo: University of Minnesota

Published in Clinical Nutrition, researchers from the University of Minnesota Medical School looked at colonic hydrogen sulfide — a toxic gas in the body that smells like rotten eggs — production in people in response to animal- and plant-based diet interventions.

“Although the role of hydrogen sulfide has long been a subject of great interest in the pathogenesis of multiple important diseases — such as ulcerative colitis, colon cancer, and obesity — past investigations have not been able to link dietary data, microbiome characterization, and actual hydrogen sulfide production,” said Alexander Khoruts, MD, a gastroenterologist in the U of M Medical School and M Health Fairview. “This is what we have done here.”

From a human cohort, the study supports the general hypothesis that hydrogen sulfide produced by the gut microbiota increases with an animal-based diet. However, the results also suggested the existence of gut microbiome enterotypes that respond differentially and even paradoxically to different dietary inputs. 

The study found that:

  • In the majority of participants, a plant-based diet resulted in a lower hydrogen sulfide production compared to an animal-based (i.e., western) diet.
  • As expected, a plant-based diet contained more fiber, while an animal-based diet contained more protein. 
  • In some individuals, plant-based diets did not lower hydrogen sulfide production and even led to some increases in it.
  • Preliminary results suggested the existence of different compositions of gut microbiota (enterotypes) that correlate with differential responsiveness to diet in terms of hydrogen sulfide production.

“​​The study was consistent with the general understanding that regular intake of fiber-containing foods is beneficial to gut health,” said Dr. Levi Teigen, a nutrition researcher in the Division of Gastroenterology at the U of M Medical School. “Future analyses of the gut microbiome may help to individualize nutrition interventions.”

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