27 Wolcott Street, Everett, MA, 02149
A look at the Trillions of microbes that live in the human gut; they could be the key to fighting disease without antibiotics.
Our Microbial Menagerie:
It has been estimated that there are about 200 TRILLION microscopic organisms - including bacteria, viruses, and fungi all swarming inside the typical human adult at any given moment. The largest collection, weighing in at 4 pounds in total is clinging to your gut as you read this. Not to be outdone, our skin also hosts more than a million microbes per square centimeter. One population thrives among the hair follicles on your scalp. Another different species resides in the crook of your elbow and so on and so on. There are about 1000 species that can live in the human mouth where different sides of the same tooth sustain distinctly different combinations of bugs. Little wonder bad breath is so prevalent.
Surprisingly little is known about these invisible communities and how they affect us. IN 2007, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched the HUMAN MICROBIOME PROJECT, a $115 million task force exploring the bugs that exist in the human body, whether people all share a core population of such organisms, and how changes in microbial ecosystems influence human health and disease.
In 2009 NIH geneticists Julie Segre published a study showing that physiologically comparable parts of the body host similar microbial ecologies, whereas contrasting areas - for example sweaty underarms and dry forearms have drastically different communities. "My Scalp community is much more similar to your scalp than to my own back. That's because bacteria thrive in particular environments," Segre stated. Another example: the human face is ideal for Propionibacterium Acnes; the well known bug that thrives on the oily, waxy remains of dead cells. Known for the troublsome acne pimples that teenagers notoriously come down with, that same bug also breaks down oils into a natural moisturizer for the skin.
Needless to say, this vast microflora is harmless to the human body provided the bugs stay where they have biologically adapted. These same bugs educate the immune system and outcompete and block other more harmful pathogens. A very good and common example of this is Staphylococcus Epidermidis. This famous bug lives on our skin. The waste products from this harmless bug prevents more deadly staph strains from taking hold. E Coli and many other microbes are crucial to the way humans digest food and nutrients in the small and large intestines. The whole "anti-bacterial Soap" craze is, in fact, counter productive.
In-depth analysis of the human body's micro-flora has been possible only in the past several years. Why? Because Gene sequencing's costs have finally been brought down to earth. Before gene sequencing was affordable, microbes had to be identified by growing them in a petrie dish. But even that is limited to around 20% of the total number of microbes due to the fact that most will not flourish in a petrie dish. A healthly microriome in the human gut is a diverse ecosystem much like the rain forest or the oceananic species that all thrive only when all the interdependent species are healthy too. With no one species dominant, diversity and hence the entire system thrives.
Microbiome studies run directly against conventional wisdom; to wit, that microbes are the cause of disease, not health. And it is true, not all microbes are happy friendly, furry little friends either. Still, the human body needs a large and diverse ecosystem of these bugs if it is to live a healthy life. Antibiotics have long been the primary weapon in fighting dangerous microbial infections. Interestingly, many modern researchers along with most chiropractors are appalled at modern medicine's near total reliance on these drugs.
How we acquire Microbes:
Researchers know too that infants acquire about 100 species of microbes just going through the birth canal with other microbes coming from the mother's skin after birth. As a child's contact increases, more microbes are added from being handled by the father, the doctor, the nurse, pround parents, that doting auntie, everyone. By the time a baby is 6 months old, he or she may has as many as 700 different species of microbes in and out of their little bodies. By their third year of life, a typical baby has an entire microbial community as individual as a fingerprint.
Heavy use of antibiotics can lead to an antibiotic resistance. As well, antibiotics can also upset the balance of the microbial community, allowing disease to take over rather than fighting off said disease. A Duke study of antibiotic therapy in over four 4000 premature babies at 19 different treatment centers found that prolonged use of drugs is associated with increased risk of necrotizing enterocolotis and death. Antibiotics have also been linked to the prevention of beneficial bacterial communities from forming in infants.
Very interestingly, a Stanford scientist published a study that illustrated the potentially devestating impact of antibiotics on the microbiome. He gave three healthy adults a five-day course of the antibiotic Cipro. This was followed by a course six months later and the patient's microbiome was monitored after each treatment. It seems that the gut flora of all three subjects gradually recovered from the impact of antibiotic therapy but never returned to their original state. The microflora contained a different composition and were less diverse. Put simply; by using antibiotics, one is literally dropping a bomb on the microbial community living inside our bodies. Note too that the increased usage of anti-biotics in chicken feed has led to an alarmingly high growth rate of antibiotic resistant bacteria in poultry. Not surprisingly, this resistance can get passed on to humans.
The next critical step in deciphering how microbes communicate. There is more than likely chemical messaging going on in the microbial community and that has to be determined and unencrypted. Microbes use chemical signals, including small molecules, proteins and DNAS to encourage neighboring organisms to grow or to tell to stop growing. If researchers can capture and understand these molecular exchanges, they might be able to produce what is being called now a "phrase book of chemical reactions."
Example: The Duke group had a very interesting case recently. A woman patient had a life threatening Clostridium-Difficile infection which causes severe inflammation of the colon. The patient had an extremely poor prognosis and heavy use of antibiotics had done nothing but worsen her condition. Suffering from chronic diarrhea, she had lost 60 pounds in over eight months. As a last ditch treatment, the doctors mixed a small amount of her husband's fecal matter mixed in a saline solution and injected it into her colon. Within 24 hours her diarrhea had stopped and after 72 hours her symptoms had all disappered. Very interestingly, the woman's microbial flora had been completely replaced with her husband's microbes. Why? Because by the time the doctors performed the "fecal transplant," she had taken so many antibiotics that her own natural microbiome had been wiped out.
The secret to keeping yourself healthy may lie in keeping your germ population healthy.