Small Intestine Senses Bitter Toxins in Food

Finding could improve cancer, diabetes treatments, study suggests

If bitter-tasting food makes you feel ill, it may just be your digestive system doing its job, a new report says.Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, studied mice and found that since the body usual equates bitterness with toxins, such flavors slow the digestive process to keep bad food in the stomach longer and increase the chances that it will be expelled. This also triggers the production of a hormone that replicates the feeling of fullness to prevent the eating of more toxic food.

The team, whose findings were published online Oct. 9 in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, believes the human body reacts the same way, which may explain why some isolated cultures have adapted to local foods that taste bad to and sicken outsiders.

"We have evolved mechanisms to combat the ingestion of toxins in our food," study senior author Timothy Osborne, a UC-Irvine molecular biology and biochemistry professor, said in a university news release. "This provides a framework for an entirely new area of research on how our bodies respond to what is present in our diets."

The study showed that bitter taste receptors in the gut stimulate the production of cholecystokinin, a hormone that suppresses appetite and slows the movement of food from the stomach to the small intestine.

The researchers also found cholesterol regulates these bitter-taste receptors with low levels of cholesterol triggering a stronger receptor response -- meaning they worked better -- while high levels caused a weaker response. When the mice were given drugs to stop the production and absorption of cholesterol, their receptors became more active, with the cells in the small intestine producing up to three times the amount of the appetite-suppressing hormone in the presence of bitter food, compared to normal mice.

This discovery, he said, may help scientists develop better therapies for many diseases. For example, making some medicines less bitter could not only increased palatability but cause the body to absorb them faster and more efficiently.

Bitter-taste receptors in the small intestine also jump-start the making of glucagon-like peptide 1, a protein that stimulates insulin secretion in the pancreas. People with diabetes sometimes are prescribed drugs that try to stabilize this protein, so future therapies could be aimed at their receptors' natural reactions.

"Because bitter-taste receptors are expressed in the gut, a new avenue exists to identify ways to stimulate production of GLP-1," Osborne said. "It could be very beneficial for the treatment of diabetes and possibly other diseases."

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