Most people associate mucus with being sick, but now researchers have discovered that when the mucus is located in your digestive tract, it may be key to helping you feel your best. That's according to a new study, published in the journal Science in the fall of 2013.

The Role of Mucus in the Digestive Tract

In the study, scientists from the Immunology Institute at Mount Sinai's Icahn School of Medicine explored why bacteria and food allergens—which can cause a strong, or even life-threatening, reaction when they come in contact with other parts of the body—don't cause the same problems when they're contained in the intestinal tract.

The researchers found that the mucus cells lining the intestines may offer some protection from the bacteria and allergens that could otherwise cause an inflammatory reaction. They also believe that mucus can boost the immune system's action.

"We found that intestinal mucus not only acts as a physical barrier against commensal bacteria and dietary antigens, but also prevents the onset of inflammatory reactions against these agents," explains Andrea Cerutti, MD, PhD, the study's senior author and Professor in the Mt. Sinai's Department of Medicine at the Immunology Institute.

The Anti-Inflammatory Benefits of Mucus

In the most basic terms, the key to these actions seems to be a type of cell contained in the intestine that modifies the body's inflammatory reaction after encountering food antigens and bacteria in the context of mucus. The researchers point out that each person typically secretes about 1 liter of mucus throughout the body. When the mucus isn't functioning properly to inhibit inflammation, they now believe it may contribute to the onset of conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease and Crohn's disease.  

This is the first time scientists have understood the fundamental properties of mucus, according to Cerutti. "By showing the beneficial anti-inflammatory activity of mucus, our work opens up a broad field of research," he says.

Using Mucus to Treat Disease

This new understanding of mucus provides real hope for people coping with the effects of a range of chronic intestinal disorders, many of which can greatly compromise one's quality of life.

Currently, the only treatment options for chronic intestinal conditions are limited to classes of medications that can cause numerous side effects. "In principle, synthetic or natural mucus might offer a valuable adjuvant therapy that could permit to reduce the dose of other drugs, thus attenuating their side effects," says Cerutti. "Our discovery could also help people affected with food allergies, who indeed can develop gut inflammation besides asthma and dermatitis. Needless to say, much more work needs to be done in order to prove the feasibility and efficacy of this potentially new therapeutic strategy."

He adds that the study results may also be used in the future to help treat certain types of aggressive cancers. Some forms of malignant cells can produce mucus that hamper the body's reaction to fight against the disease. A better understanding of the protective properties of healthy mucus may prove beneficial in developing successful treatment strategies.

Andrea Cerutti, MD, PhD, reviewed this article.




Andrea Cerutti, MD, PhD, Mt. Sinai Department of Medicine at the Immunology Institute, email interview, Dec. 22, 2013.

Meimei Shan, Maurizio Gentile et al. "Mucus Enhances Gut Homeostasis and Oral Tolerance By Delivering Immunoregulatory Signals." Science 25 342(6157) (Oct. 2013): 447-453.

"Mucus Might Prove Useful in Treating Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn's Disease." Mount Sinai Hospital, accessed online Dec. 24, 2013.