Bacteria R Us
“Bacteria make us sick. Do they also keep us alive?” is the subhead under “Germs Are Us,” by Michael Specter in the October 22 issue of The New Yorker. About five years ago, DNA-sequencing technology was harnessed to scrutinize the world of microbes (microscopic organisms). This effort revealed that the prevalent lust to scrub us of bacteria (a type of microbe) has had a downside: our internal ecosystem needs them. To stay well, we do need to kill some germs, but we also need to cultivate others. Unfortunately, so far we haven’t been able to pick and choose.
Widespread first-world obesity is one result, according to the article. That’s because without a particular bacterium identified in recent research, many of us no longer possess the stomach hormones that tell us when to stop eating. “Bad eating habits are not sufficient to explain the worldwide explosion in obesity,” says Martin J. Blaser, Department of Medicine chairman at NYU, in the article.
And with obesity comes type 2 diabetes.
The rise in type 1 diabetes also has been linked to the decimation of bacteria, as has the increase in celiac disease, asthma, and allergies.
What’s killing the bacteria? Well, of course, lots of courses of antibiotics. That, and delivery of babies by Cesarean section, which robs babies of the microbes they’d get from their mothers through vaginal birth. I was stunned to read that a third of the U.S. deliveries last year were by Cesarean section – and half of Chinese deliveries.
So now some doctors and researchers are imagining a time when they’d prescribe probiotics to repopulate the intestines of their patients, depending on family history and tests of the patient’s gut “microbiome” – the trillions of microbes each of us carries around. Restoring destroyed bacteria in childhood but then getting rid of it again in adulthood might be the way to go, according to some researchers Specter interviewed. Now, however, current claims about the reliability of probiotics available to consumers are not viewed as trustworthy by the Food and Drug Administration or by doctors. Our understanding of the human microbiome is still sketchy. Yes, we know that some good bacteria naturally act as antibiotics, but we still don’t understand the battles between bacterial species raging within our bodies – not enough to figure out how to handle them.
My gut feeling – the psychic, not the bacterial kind – had already told me that it’s not just the onslaught of processed, nutritionally bereft food that has kept fattening up the developed world and leading it down the path toward diabetes, and that other onslaughts – antibiotics and toxins – share the blame.
So what do we do? For one thing, find ways to consciously reprogram ourselves about when and how to eat, to make up for our missing chemical self-regulators. We need to harness a variety of tactics, which can work together – like a bunch of bacteria.
copyright © 2012 Lisa Bernstein