Diabetes partly caused by missing bacteria

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

4 comments

  • Lydia
    Lydia
    Scary and interesting!

    Scary and interesting!

  • Evelyn
    Evelyn
    This is fascinating and important information! I never dreamed...

    This is fascinating and important information! I never dreamed...

  • Martin Grantham
    Martin Grantham
    The recent microbiome work is fascinating, showing once again that in Nature, diversity yields stability. I feel lucky that I grew up working with soil and with a pediatrician who rejected unnecessary antibiotic use... I recently learned that the most common antibacterial chemical used for many years now in soaps, triclosan, damages the thyroid... In horticulture there has been research for 20 years + on organisms that could be used for competitive inhibition of pathogens, because we knew sterility in growing media leaves plants much more vulnerable to disease. Not only could the presence of introduced nonpathogenic organisms reduce plant disease, most showed an additional growth enhancement effect. I'm sure it's very similar with the bacteria in and all over us: take them all away and disease organisms are unchecked by competition, but additionally our natural bacterial colonists enhance our physiological functions or are necessary for them...

    The recent microbiome work is fascinating, showing once again that in Nature, diversity yields stability. I feel lucky that I grew up working with soil and with a pediatrician who rejected unnecessary antibiotic use... I recently learned that the most common antibacterial chemical used for many years now in soaps, triclosan, damages the thyroid... In horticulture there has been research for 20 years + on organisms that could be used for competitive inhibition of pathogens, because we knew sterility in growing media leaves plants much more vulnerable to disease. Not only could the presence of introduced nonpathogenic organisms reduce plant disease, most showed an additional growth enhancement effect. I'm sure it's very similar with the bacteria in and all over us: take them all away and disease organisms are unchecked by competition, but additionally our natural bacterial colonists enhance our physiological functions or are necessary for them...

  • Bill D.
    Bill D.
    I wish I knew how to evaluate the effectiveness of probiotics better. I'm going to research this on the web.

    I wish I knew how to evaluate the effectiveness of probiotics better. I'm going to research this on the web.

Add comment