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The previous blog, Man’s Miraculous Microbes, has raised many questions. Before answering them, let me say that this information is based on very recent medical research, and scientists have barely scratched the surface.
It’s a fascinating new science—our body being host to trillions of living microbes, but also a most challenging one because these microbes interact in a highly complex fashion that affects our health and wellbeing, possibly even our mood. If this community of bacteria gets out of balance or if we lack the right ones, serious problems can arise.
Much of the data comes from Michael Pollan’s in-depth article in New York Times’ Magazine of May 15, 2013.
To answer your questions:
1. How can I ensure the best possible mircrobiome (bacteria) for my children? Primarily by nursing a child. Mother’s milk contains nutrients that nourish not only the baby, but also the baby’s vital bacteria, which was unknown until recently. Caesarian delivery of a baby has disadvantages, because it deprives the baby of important gut bacteria that it acquires while traveling through the birth canal.
2. Should I worry when my child gets covered with mud or hugs our dog? Not at all, unless your dog is sick or has worms. It enriches the child’s bacterial world that becomes more varied and robust to fight off diseases. Apparently, when we live in the city away from animals, plants and soil, we miss out on many beneficial bacteria and become prone to autoimmune diseases and allergies.
3. Why can’t we live without microbes? Apparently we can’t. Microbes help us digest our meals, they tell us when we’re hungry, and when we are full. They prevent the intrusion of foreign bacteria and help us to adapt to our changing environment, such as pollution and new toxins in food. In effect, some scientists are sounding the alarm that due to industrialization, antibiotics and the sterility of processed foods several of our bacteria have become extinct and our microbiome is becoming increasingly impoverished, causing disorders, such as immune deficiency diseases, asthma, allergies and Diabetes 2.
4. I keep gaining weight, what can I do? One important species of bacteria, the H. pylori, has practically disappeared. It neutralizes the bacteria that urge us to eat when we are hungry. When we have eaten enough, the H. pylori tell us that we are full. Without it, we tend to keep eating, which may be the cause for today’s widespread obesity.
5. How can we optimize good health? Good bacteria thrive on a varied and fiber-rich diet, also on foods made with live cultures such as yogurt, and on fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and kimchi. It’s a good idea to keep our toothbrushes at least six feet away from the toilet. Whenever we flush, large amounts of bacteria are stirred up. “The world is covered with a fine patina of feces,” says Stanford Microbiologist Stanley Falkow; house dust is no exception.
6. Are fiber supplements the answer? Probably not, because fiber is not a single nutrient, there are hundreds of different polysaccharides. It’s better to vary our diet and include different types of fiber—resistant starch fiber as in bananas, oats and beans, soluble fiber as in root vegetables such as onions, and insoluble fiber as in bran, whole grains and avocados. It also matters how they are prepared. Al dente pasta is preferable to overcooked one; steel-cut oats are better than rolled; raw and lightly cooked vegetables are better than well done.
7. What determines our microbiome? We acquire our first microbes from our mother while traveling through the birth canal. Therefore, if possible, avoid having a Caesarian. Mother’s milk provides the next set of good bacteria. Others are picked up from our environment. A healthy community of microbes keeps foreign and hostile bacteria away. Depending on the robustness of our gut bacteria, for example, one food can make one person sick, but not an other.
8. Why are gut bacteria so important? Gut bacteria are instrumental in creating serotonin, enzymes and vitamins, such as Bs and K. They not only influence our immune system, but they may also regulate our stress levels. Experiments have shown when gut microbes from an easy-going mouse were transplanted to an anxious and nervous mouse, it became more relaxed and enterprising.
Gut bacteria also regulate our appetite and digestion, and thus our metabolism. Malnourished children may require more than food; they need to have their gut’s microbial community rebalanced. (see 5.)
9. Why do antibiotics cause problems? Antibiotics have saved many lives. Yet they should be used only if truly necessary, because they kill bad as well as good bacteria and thus cause havoc in our bacterial world. They may even be the cause for our gaining weight. Unfortunately, livestock is fed large quantities of antibiotics today; as a consequence antibiotic microbes have been found in meat, milk and surface water. Even hand sanitizers and chlorine washes for lettuce may be suspect.
Probiotics may be a good antidote when taking antibiotics, but it may not be prudent to take them as a constant supplement. Too little is known about them. The probiotic market is not regulated. When 14 products were tested, only one contained the exact species stated on the label.
Processed foods too are raising concern because of their sterility. Also, they contain detergent-like ingredients such as lecithin, CMC, polysorbate 80 and Datem that can lead to low-grade inflammations—a response of the immune system to a perceived threat. Some researchers suspect that a majority, if not most, of today’s chronic diseases are in fact inflammations originating in the gut. They may lead to metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and possibly some cancers.
Patrice Cani at the University of Louvain in Brussels recently produced evidence of how this is possible. He fed a high-fat, junk-food diet to mice. This noticeably changed the microbiota in their gut—it also happens to humans when on a similar diet. On closer examination, Cani discovered that the lining of their gut had become permeable, allowing endotoxins to leak into the bloodstream. The result was a low-grade inflammation that eventually led to metabolic syndrome. Researchers suspect that the cause of most if not allchronic diseases may point to the microbiota of the gut.
Industrialization will continue to cause pollution, cities will cement over mother Earth, processing will deplete our food and high technology is likely to expose us to increasing levels of radiation. However, there’s no need to despair about the negative aspects of our modern world. While we cannot turn back the clock, we can make sensible choices; we can take good care our microbiome and nourish it well so it can do its job to protect us and help us adjust to unavoidable changes. Indeed, we have the choice of enjoying the best of both worlds.
Until next time,