In patients with progressive systemic sclerosis, impaired motor function of the small intestine may lead to bacterial overgrowth causing diarrhoea, steatorrhoea and malabsorption. As unconjugated serum bile acids have been proposed as markers for small bowel bacterial overgrowth, we studied individual unconjugated serum bile acids in 36 patients with progressive systemic sclerosis. These patients had significantly higher serum concentrations of unconjugated cholic acid (median 0.18; range 0.05-30.75 v 0.09; 0.01-0.19 mumol/l, p less than 0.001) and chenodeoxycholic acid (0.10; 0.01-6.83 v 0.04; 0.01-0.39 mumol/l, p less than 0.025) than healthy controls (n = 16). This difference was mainly due to patients with diarrhoea (n = 10), who had significantly higher concentrations of unconjugated serum bile acids than patients with normal bowel habit (cholic acid median 0.55 v 0.16 mumol/l, p less than 0.001; chenodeoxycholic acid 0.75 v 0.07 mumol/l; p less than 0.005). All patients with raised unconjugated serum bile acids had oesophageal motility disorders. These results confirm a relationship between motility disorders and bacterial overgrowth in patients with progressive systemic sclerosis.
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