Our Friendly Gut Microbes

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2015-07-02 – Life expectancy 100 years ago in the United States was 52.5 for men and 56.8 for women. These figures were bumped up to 66.8 for men and 73.8 for women by 1965. As of today, life expectancy for men is 76.2 and for women is 82.2. (Don’t worry, boomers, since you’ve made it 60 years or so already, you’ve got more ahead of you than these figures show. These figures are life expectancy at birth. You weren’t born yesterday.)

I give you these figures because, if you get your news from the news, healthcare in the United States is crap. We don’t know what we’re doing. And we’re all going to die.

Well, the last part is true. But we’re not going to die soon. As a group, we are living longer than our parents and our parents are living longer than our grandparents.

I read an interesting article today about the role of friendly microbes in our health. These critters occupy our gut and our skin and our lungs. There’s more of them than there is us. But unlike smallpox or polio or tetanus or malaria, these critters mostly help us. They filter the environment for us. They fine tune our immune system. And we keep learning about them and how we get sick if they are out of balance.

Yes. We get sick if they are out of balance.

But before you get carried away, remember this: we are living longer now than humans ever did. By a lot. And we seem to like living longer.

So . . . medical researchers are beginning to figure out how our microbiome goes in and out of balance. And it turns out that medical interventions contribute to the imbalance—and thus to chronic diseases that are caused by the imbalance.

Antibiotics kill some of our friendly microbes, just as they kill the unfriendly ones. We get antibiotics that are prescribed for real life-threatening diseases, but they are also over-prescribed and they are used in chicken feed to give our chickens plump breasts. Most antibiotic use could be curtailed. But not all. Remember, chances are good that you would be dead if it weren’t for that course of antibiotics you took several years ago.

Pesticides in the environment and artificial chemicals in our foods also contribute to our microbial imbalance. But remember, pesticides and preservatives have contributed to the growth of our food supply. Without them, a good portion of the world alive today would have died of starvation.

Here’s an interesting one. It seems that the decline of natural childbirth has contributed to microbial imbalance. A babe in-utero comes without friendly microbes. Each of us gets our starting culture when we are born and pass through the vaginal canal of our mothers—unless we don’t pass through the vaginal canal. Cesarean delivery alters this entirely. And research has indicated that cesarean babies do have increased risk of various chronic conditions—possibly due to imbalances in the microbiome that got started at birth.

And so on.

I began this post talking about life expectancy because we, as a society have a tendency to look at the risk-du-jour as if it is the only risk. Unfortunately, life is much more complicated.

Undoubtedly, modern civilization does great harm to our friendly microbes, and research should be done on ways to mitigate these harms. But we need to avoid getting carried away. The medical advances of the 20th century were real advances. They extended our lives. So we need to avoid throwing those advances away as we turn our attention to these other risks to our lives and health.

 

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