Brand new research—REVEALED!
It looks like some good might come out of a new initiative at the NIH (National Institutes of Health) for once. Back in 2008, they launched a research program called the Human Microbiome Project. Four years later, the results of this research have started to emerge. And the findings have created quite a stir.
It’s made the cover of magazines, and more than one headline—even in mainstream news outlets. In fact, I was interviewed by The Boston Globe about it recently, and I’ll share what
I told them—and more—in just a moment.
First, you need to understand what the “microbiome” is—and how it may affect the way you keep yourself and your family healthy.
The 100 trillion microbes you can’t live without
It’s estimated there are 100 trillion microbes normally present in the human body. This is what scientists are calling the “microbiome.”
And to understand how it works in terms of health and disease, some medical scientists are finally doing what I’ve been suggesting for years: thinking like biologists and ecologists.
The micro-organisms that make up the normal human microbiome have evolved with us for millions of years.
And they form part of the natural and normal ecology of health.
Microbes are normally present on the skin and in the gastro-intestinal tract, the two components of the body that are normally exposed to the outside environment. The surface areas involved are larger than the surface of a tennis court. And within the mouth alone, there are many different “mini- microbiomes.” Those on the tongue, gums, and even individual teeth are different from each other.
These tiny organisms are a key to helping us stay in good health— mostly. They have been linked to warding off infections and helping us breakdown and metabolize nutrients for healthy digestion. They may even be critical for preventing obesity and cancer.
The microbiome is important from birth. For example, during pregnancy, the mother’s birth canal begins growing Lactobacillus bacteria. The newborn absorbs this bacteria at birth, and it’s critical for healthy digestion of mother’s milk during breastfeeding. During childhood, the microbiome guides healthy development of the immune system.
Not only does the microbiome help protect us from deadly infections and diseases, it may help define us as individuals—like tiny colonizers on our bodily “planets.”
However, while each person is an individual when it comes to her or his own personal microbiome, some scientists have recently suggested that there are three basic types of normal biome (like the three different blood types) called “enterotypes.” Your enterotype is based on which of these three basic bacterial types predominates in your own microbiome.
As with blood types, the enterotypes don’t explain everything about an individual. But they may go a long way toward tailoring appropriate treatments to each individual. This is something that has long been one of the primary tenets of natural medicine. And is one of the things that make the Human Microbiome Project such an exciting advancement in mainstream medicine.
Putting the cart before the horse
Until now, the major focus of researchers has been on the ability of the microbiome to ward off infections from foreign bacteria that try to invade the body.
And the related concern that antibiotics (used to treat specific bacterial infections) also kill off the “good” bacteria of the normal microbiome. This opens the door to other disease-causing infections.
For example, Clostridium difficile (a dangerous bacteria in the family that causes gangrene, botulism, and tetanus, and whose name means “difficult” in Latin) often colonizes antibiotic- treated patients. And it can indeed be “difficult”—if not impossible—to treat. Over the past decade, hospital-acquired infections with C. difficile have more than doubled—from 140,000 to 340,000 cases.
And when it comes to the microbiome of the skin, there are important concerns about disruptions that may lead to dangerous infections with strains of Staphylococcus aureus, for example.
But most doctors still don’t “get it” when it comes to dealing with the microbiome. Mostly because there’s no simple, “one-size-fits-all,” solution (i.e. drug) to dole out.
But if there is one thing that has become crystal clear, it’s that we all need to tend to our microbiomes on a regular basis. And not just when we’re battling a bout of diarrhea or taking a course of antibiotics.
In other words, we need to begin looking at our microbiomes as the foundation of good health—rather than something to “fix” after the fact.
One researcher at the National Human Genome Research Institute suggests that the best way to make that mindset shift is to stop using aggressive terms when it comes to bacteria. Common phrases like “war” on infection, and “magic bullets” to kill bacteria, and “combatting” microbes present a one-sided view of the role of microbes in health.
The key is reaching or restoring the right balance. And, thanks to the insights coming out of the Human Microbiome Project, medical researchers are marveling at this “new” concept. Of course, biologists and medical anthropologists have been studying this approach for generations.
But regardless of how long this idea has been around, one thing is clear: Balancing your microbiome can make a dramatic impact on your health.
Why that probiotic supplement may not be the best choice
Of course, when most people think about restoring or maintaining the GI microbiome (more commonly known as “gut microflora,” or simply “gut health”), they assume a probiotic dietary supplement will do the job.
But I have to admit, as common as probiotic supplements are these days—and as widely accepted as they’ve become by both natural and mainstream medicine—I’m still skeptical.
The problem is, a probiotic must pass through the entire digestive system—the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and intestines—in order to reach the site of most of the microbiome.
This passage goes through a very hostile environment with numerous enzymes, strong acids, and biochemicals designed to break down and destroy whatever is passing through. This is why protein-based therapies like insulin, or complex vitamins like vitamin B12, and some steroids, have to be injected directly into the bloodstream. Because they can’t make it through the digestive tract and into the blood.
So, the chances of living “probiotic” bacteria swallowed in dietary supplements making it through this gauntlet are very slim. Plus, most of the microbes in probiotic supplements were chosen because they have a long shelf-life or for other reasons not based upon any evidence of their effectiveness. Many studies on probiotics find that people who take them simply have more healthy immune systems to begin with.
So it’s difficult to say what—if any—effect the standard probiotics have on overall immunity.
That said, there is also no evidence that they do any harm. And some specific probiotics, such as Lactobacillus reuteri have been shown to be helpful in diarrhea— especially in children.
So it’s not necessarily a matter of writing probiotic supplements off completely. However, I do think there are more effective ways to ensure your microbiome is balanced and healthy.
How to give your body a more guaranteed microbe boost
First and foremost, you should avoid the use of antibiotics unless they’re absolutely necessary. Antibiotics disrupt the normal microbiome, causing adverse health consequences that scientists are just now beginning to understand. Not to mention the fact that overuse and misuse of antibiotics has led to the development of dangerous strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Along these same lines, avoid using “anti-bacterial” gels and soaps. Obviously, these products disrupt your skin’s natural microbiome. I discussed the hazards associated with these in more detail in the November 2012 issue of Insiders’ Cures.
Beyond avoiding these common microbiome disruptors, there are also some simple steps you can take to give your body a “microbe boost.”
There are several food sources of healthy bacteria (probiotics) that, when eaten regularly, can be absorbed in the normal food matrix and help keep your microbiome balanced as had been done in traditional cultures for generations.
Yogurt and cheese are two of the easiest to find. But raw milk may be even more effective—if you can get it. From my experience as a physician, a good dose of raw milk seems to be able to help just about any gastro-intestinal problem. In this way, I’ve always considered it more as a medicine than a food. Unfortunately, raw milk is forbidden by many nanny state governments. To find a source near you, visit www.realmilk.com.
Traditionally cultured foods like sauerkraut or Korean kim chi are also good dietary sources of probiotics. As are traditional soy sauces and fish sauces and pastes from East and Southeast Asia. Even home-brewed beer and wine can be a good, natural source of probiotics— as long as it hasn’t been pasteurized. (Plus, you get the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption).
In addition to these probiotic foods which introduce and help maintain healthy microbes, there are also some foods that can help nurture the normal microbiome itself. Artichoke, barley, beans, green, leafy vegetables, and oats all naturally promote and support the growth of good bacteria that are already present in the GI tract.
These probiotic foods used to be common in many traditional diets worldwide. They provided our ancestors with a steady diet of healthy microbes that helped to keep intestinal microbes and immune systems in healthy balance.
Unfortunately, sterilization and pasteurization came along—and killed off all microbes in foods. In theory, it sounds like a good thing. But as we’re seeing now, these “modern” techniques have made a huge impact on our microbiomes— and not for the better. Particularly when you consider the over-use of antibiotics and anti-bacterial products that has also come about in recent years.
Over time all this has resulted in making us more vulnerable to acute infection and chronic inflammation. These developments may, in turn, be contributing to the dramatic increases in chronic inflammatory diseases, autoimmune disorders, and diabetes. Not to mention health problems like asthma, allergies, chronic sinus infections, and even some cancers.
The more we learn about the human microbiome, the more complex it seems. And the modern day threats to our systems just keep piling up. The good news is, protecting yourself from these threats and keeping your body’s microbiome balanced is really quite simple with the steps I outlined above.
A new kind of life-saving “transplant”
Recently, scientists have had success improving microbiome imbalances using “fecal transplants.” Yes, you read that correctly.
Using a simple suppository, they’re able to introduce normal bacterial microbiome directly into the colon (large intestines)—bypassing all the problems of digestion and destruction in the upper GI tract.
And squirm factor aside, this approach is proving very beneficial for patients who have had their normal bacteria disrupted by disease and/or antibiotic treatments. In fact, these “transplants” have been successful in nearly 90 percent of cases. If it sounds like you might be a candidate for such a treatment, ask your doctor or GI specialist whether it is available in your area.
Three simple steps to a healthy microbiome
1. Take antibiotics only when necessary, confirmed by a medical test for bacterial infection.
2. Wash your hands and face frequently with regular soap and water.
3. Three to five times per week, eat a serving of yogurt, and incorporate foods like artichoke, kimchi, legumes, oats, or sauerkraut into your regular diet.