Missing Microbes

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It seemed like only a month or so ago (turns out it was 3) that I listened to Terry Gross interview Dr. Martin J. Blaser about his new book, Missing Microbes on NPR’s Fresh Air on my way to work.  I was so fascinated that I decided to get it from my local library.  After waiting patiently in the queue, I received the e-mail announcing that the book was finally available for me to check out.  Hooray!

I learned a lot about the microbiome in the book.  While I knew that we all share our lives with bacteria, I didn’t know that the body is composed of “an estimated 30 trillion human cells” but is also host to “more than 100 trillion bacterial and fungal cells.”  Specifically, “seventy to ninety percent of all cells in your body are nonhuman.”  All told, “these bacteria weigh about three pounds, or the same as your brain, and represent perhaps ten thousand distinct species.”  Incredible.

Dr. Blaser makes cogent arguments for the overuse of antibiotics in the United States.  I was personally thrilled to read that France has had 2 campaigns to instruct both physicians and patients about the risk of antibiotic overuse.  While Dr. Blaser didn’t suggest that this had economic motivations, I suspect that that may have also influenced the decision.  Nonetheless, that France–and other nations–are attempting to implement measures to reduce our excessive use of antibiotics, is good news.  I certainly don’t imagine that we will fully dodge the “super bug” (or bugs) that can resist current antibiotics, it is comforting to think that some public health officials are trying to minimize our risk.

I found the chapter on c-sections fascinating.  I had no idea that an infant is bacteria free when it is in the womb.  I don’t know what I thought prior to reading the book.   Probably nothing.  But, it was quite the revelation that babies receive their first “dose” of bacteria as they pass through their mother’s vagina on their way out into the world.  Children born from c-sections, however, acquire bacteria from the hospital surroundings and then from parents and so on.  Hunh.

Here’s a fun fact for you: each and every one of us has a unique microbiome.  It’s kind of like a fingerprint in that no two are identical.  That revelation prompted me to think about the reasons behind our different reactions to different drugs, foods, situations and so on.  How many times have you been talking with a friend about health problems and she has one kind of solution that works for her and you have another one that works for you?  In those conversations, I feel like, most of the time, both of us are wondering why.  Maybe I now have the explanation?

Dr. Blaser suggests that the dwindling diversity of our microbiome could maybe, possibly be a factor in the rise in obesity, diabetes, esophageal cancer, allergies, and asthma.  For some afflictions, he points to his laboratory studies on how mice have been shown to demonstrate a certain condition with certain types of antibiotics.  It seems that he and his team have scratched the surface of these modern “epidemics” and he is quick to point out that he doesn’t have all the answers.

Learning about possible solutions to our microbiome deficit was encouraging.  There are things that can be done.  Diagnostic tests to determine if an individual’s symptoms are driven by bacteria or viruses could be utilized (once they’re funded and developed).  Then, there’s fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT).  Sounds nasty, but, rest assured, it isn’t coprophagia.  You get a slurry of “good poop” from a donor and, instead of drinking it, it gets dumped into your body via a tube.  But hey, it could save your life!  I was particularly intrigued by narrow-spectrum agents that are basically drugs that attack a particular bacterial strain that is wreaking havoc on your system.  Can it be done?  Not now, but it could be if it was funded and the research could proceed.  Sounds like a lot of painful work.  Lastly, Dr. Blaser mentioned that it would be a good idea to stop feeding antibiotics to cows, pigs, and other farm animals that become food since many people get extra doses of the drug that way.  Plus, and this is my comment, not the good doctor’s, a cramped, overcrowded space is a perfect place for a superbug to appear.    While it’s not a bacterium, nor is it currently a threat to public health, the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDv) sounds pretty awful.

Well, that’s all I have to say about the book.  Well worth the wait and the read.  I am sharing this information with you since it gave me a lot of food for thought.  Maybe it will for you, too.

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