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Wellness Corner February 2016


Wellness Corner - February 2016

by Veronica Jordan, MD

Germs as Allies

Wow, scientific thinking can really change quickly! Shifting from the pre-antibiotic era where we feared germs because they could be fatal, through a time of annoying but treatable infections, to the new concerns about super-infections, we have long been at war with bacteria. Research now shows we actually encompass at least hundreds of diverse organisms in our bodies and learning to cultivate beneficial bacteria can lead to improved health.

Researchers estimate that only 10% of our body’s cells are human, the other 90% are bacteria-- on our skin, in our mouths, and especially prominent in our intestines. As Michael Pollen states, “To the extent that we are bearers of genetic information, more than 99 percent of it is microbial. And it appears increasingly likely that this ‘second genome,’ as it is sometimes called, exerts an influence on our health as great and possibly even greater than the genes we inherit from our parents. But while your inherited genes are more or less fixed, it may be possible to reshape, even cultivate, your second genome.” 

Development of the Human Microbiome 

In utero, the gut of the fetus is sterile—no bacteria present. For babies born vaginally, s/he is coated in the bacteria from the mother at birth and begins developing their unique colony. Now, C-section babies don’t get the same exposure, and there is some suspicion that this may be a factor in the higher rates of auto-immune diseases in these children.

Diet in children, of course, plays a big role. Breast-milk has long been known to contain some mysterious complex carbohydrates called oligosaccharides that babies do not have the enzymes to digest. When researchers realized these compounds are uniquely suited to supporting Bifidobacterium, a friendly bacteria that encourages gut health and crowds out problematic bacteria, the evolutionary benefits of breast milk made more sense.

The child’s gut flora continues to evolve with the introduction of solid foods, until it resembles that of an adult by about age 3. A good deal of research shows that exposure to a large number of micro-organisms-- having kids play outside in the dirt, having animals in a household-- leads to a lower incidence of asthma, allergies, and auto-immune diseases. These early exposures help the immune system learn to respond appropriately to stimuli, a self-regulation lost in allergies.


This new paradigm about germs is still very early in its development, but the implications to our conception of human health is pretty staggering. 

Since obesity concerns are prominent today, let us consider the possibility that our microbial companions play a role. One study showed that children who receive a broad-spectrum antibiotic before the age of two have an 11% higher risk of obesity later in life. Farmers have been adding antibiotics to livestock feed for decades because they have found it as a cheap way to fatten up the cattle before slaughter. The way this works is not known, but we suspect a connection with altering the bacterial landscape in the guts of the animals. 

Another mind-blowing implication is that bacteria produce substances that can act as neurotransmitters. In essence, some of our moods may not be “ours” at all, they may be generated from the bacteria in our gut. Researchers have been able to decrease anxiety levels in laboratory mice by shifting the bacterial flora. Also, recent work suggests that some food cravings may change based on which bacteria are prominent in our guts. Thus, the key to sticking with a diet may not be ‘will power,’ it may be to change our microbiome.

How to Affect Your Gut Flora

Much of the advice given in the natural health world over the years is very consistent with efforts to encourage a healthy microbiome.

• Eat a predominantly whole foods, plant-based diet. Fiber is very beneficial for bacterial growth.

• Take probiotics and eat fermented foods (sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir). Clear guidelines are still lacking on which probiotics.

• Avoid antibiotics if possible.  These kill the good bacteria, as well as the bad.

• The most drastic experimental protocol is a “fecal transplant” which introduces some fecal material into the rectum to help colonize with beneficial bacteria.