What do asthma, celiac disease, Crohn's disease & colitis, caesarean section, obesity, stomach cancer and esophageal cancer have in common? If you or a loved one is dealing with any of these conditions, be sure to check out Missing MIcrobes by Dr. Martin Blaser, M.D.
Thanks to COVID, I had a lot more reading time. And I love to share books that I think my readers would like. Missing microbes are studying how overuse of antibiotics kills our gut microbiome and fuels our modern epidemics. Oddly enough, it was actually released in 2015, well before COVID. And it's been sitting on my bookshelf ever since. I finally read it recently. And WOW was I surprised at how much I learned. So I felt compelled to share some of it here. As Dr. Martin Blaser, a scientist and MD at NYU, stated in Missing Microbes, while antibiotics definitely have their time and place, their overuse in our modern society has devastated our gut microbiome.
Gut microbiome 101
Let's start with a little primer of the gut microbiome in case you're unfamiliar. Literally millions, if not billions of microbes live in our bodies. They live on our skin, in our eyelashes, in our mouths. And really everywhere in us and on us. The vast majority live in our intestines or in our stomach and intestines. These microbes share a symbiotic relationship with our body. And they are significantly involved in almost all biological processes, from digestion to the formation of vitamins in our body and much more.
One of the most important roles of the gut microbiome is that it makes up about 80% of our immune system.
So when we miss microbes, our gut microbiome is depleted. And so is our own natural defense system – our immune system. Shocking research on indigenous tribes from the Amazon, sub-Saharan Africa, Australia and Southeast Asia shows that indigenous populations who have never been exposed to Western medicine or processed foods have around 2,500 different types of gut microbes. While more western civilizations only have between 500 and 1000 different species. This means that we have declined by about 60-80% of the normal biodiversity that humans developed to house in our intestines. Or possibly 60-80% of our immune system. Hence it is very important that we keep the remaining small population of gut microbes that we have.
Keystone species and biodiversity
As with any ecosystem, if you lose keystone species, the entire ecosystem can collapse. This example of what happened when Yellowstone National Park wiped out wolves in the 1920s is similar to what happens in our gut when we lose our microbial keystone species.
Wolves were a key species in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. And without wolves as beasts of prey, the deer and elk were overpopulated, devouring all the pastures and turning the river coasts into grasslands. Blaser explains: “Songbirds and beavers that depended on the willow trees disappeared. And with no carcasses killed by wolves, ravens, eagles, magpies, and bears refused. More elk resulted in fewer bison … Coyotes came back to the park and ate the mice that birds and badgers relied on. "
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem practically collapsed. But with the reintroduction of wolves in 1995, Yellowstone began to flourish again. The same analogy shows up in our own gut microbiome when we lose Keystone species. Our entire microbiome can collapse and lead to SIBO (bacterial overgrowth of the small intestine), C-Diff (a highly infectious bacterial infection), and H. pylori (another potential bacterial overgrowth that can end in the wrong place or too high) number, but can also benefit some people.)
If you've ever had an ulcer, you may have heard of H. pylori. It is a bacterium that normally lives in our stomach in small amounts. And to some, it doesn't seem to do any harm at all. But for other people it's linked to stomach ulcers and stomach cancer. When the doctors found out, they thought, "Great, let's eradicate H. pylori from everyone and prevent ulcers and stomach cancer." But not as quickly as we just learned about Yellowstone above, everything in nature has a purpose. Even H. pylori. It turns out that it can cause stomach ulcers and stomach cancer in some people, but it also protects some people from esophageal cancer.
More research needs to be done to determine who will or will not benefit from H. pylori and why. However, if you've been diagnosed with H. pylori and your doctor wants to give you a round of eradication antibiotics, you may want to do your own tests. There are also herbal remedies that can remove it, such as chewing gum. Talking to a functional medicine doctor or a holistic doctor can help.
Overuse of antibiotics
While antibiotics are great for a severe infection, their overuse is common worldwide. In India, antibiotics are over-the-counter and you can buy them whenever you want and use them for anything without a doctor's prescription. The craze for antibacterial soap (or any antibacterial product, from children's toys to kitchen chopping boards) over the past 20 years has hurt our microbes as well.
Unfortunately, it has also become common in the United States to add antibiotics to the infusion solution given to most pregnant women in the delivery room. Many of them don't even know they are getting antibiotics … supposedly to prevent 75% of all antibiotics sold in the US today from being used in factory farming.
WHY are antibiotics fed to farm animals?
The most surprising thing to me was WHY antibiotics are fed to farm animals. I've always assumed that it was about preventing disease in animals that are kept in unsanitary, cramped conditions. But that's not why large factory farms use antibiotics. Get this … Research has shown that just one round of antibiotics causes weight gain. So farmers have learned that when they pump their animals full of antibiotics, they can feed less and still gain more weight. IMPRESSIVE! Antibiotics not only interact directly with our microbiome, but also with our hormones. And it turns out that antibiotics can directly cause weight gain in humans too.
Dr. Martin Blaser's own scientific research, carried out first in mice and then observed in humans, shows conclusive evidence that antibiotics given to children under two years of age lead to a significantly increased risk of developing obesity as an adult. And the more rounds of antibiotics you took as a child, the greater the risk of obesity as an adult. Shocking. (This was the only part of the book that I didn't love. If you are an animal lover and don't like scientific research on animals, you should skip reading about the mouse experiments.)
What do asthma, celiac disease, chronic disease and colitis have to do with antibiotics? It turns out that a few rounds of antibiotics as children or young adults also contribute significantly to these diseases. Antibiotics can also contribute to intestinal permeability. In fact, a large percentage of people were diagnosed with celiac disease soon after taking a round of antibiotics, including myself! I had severe food poisoning in Thailand in 1997 for which I was given a high dose of antibiotics. After that, I had chronic bowel and skin problems for two years until I was finally diagnosed with celiac disease. Celiac disease is the inability to digest the protein gluten (found in wheat, barley, rye, and processed foods). Gluten acts like splinters of glass that tear the lining of the intestines apart when a person with celiac disease takes it.
While celiac disease is genetic in nature, it is also considered an autoimmune disease. You need the gene for celiac disease, which is then triggered by a toxin (like an antibiotic), which “turns on” the gene and creates autoimmune disease (epigenetics). Taking antibiotics may kill the microbes that originally protected the celiac gene from turning on. The incidence of celiac disease has quadrupled since the 1950s when the use of antibiotics prevailed. And it's not just that they know how to better diagnose it, more of it actually happens.
Restoring your microbiome
According to Dr. It takes Blaser at least six months to restore your microbes after just one dose of antibiotics. That's if you can even restore them. Unfortunately, some can be lost permanently. Interestingly, there was also a study reviewing medical records of people who contracted H1N1 flu in 2009. It turned out that a large percentage of them had taken a round of antibiotics in the month before they became infected with H1N1.
Maybe your immune system was so weakened by this one round of antibiotics that you could no longer fight off the H1N1 virus? At that time I had also got H1N1 – the sickest thing I've ever been in my life! And this news makes me go through my own health records again to see if I might have been on antibiotics the month before ?! I also wonder about COVID-19 … How many of the sick have compromised gut microbiomes? Undoubtedly, Dr. Marin Blaser already has this.
Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria
In view of the overuse of antibiotics these days, there is a big problem with the number of antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains. There are biggies like MRSA where few or no antibiotics are effective against MRSA. And now there are even antibiotic-resistant strains of tuberculosis and gonorrhea. Another fascinating aspect of how microbes work is that bacteria can actually share protective molecules. So if a strain of bacteria is resistant to antibiotics, they can share their resistance (think of that as a protective shield) with other microbes nearby, making those microbes resistant too. No bueno!
Many herbal remedies are inherently "antibiotic" (an example is oregano oil, used to eradicate foodborne diseases), and microbes appear not to be resistant to these natural herbal "antibiotic" remedies
What do missing microbes mean for us?
We should try to use as few antibiotics as possible in our life. And especially when it comes to children under two years of age. Many young children are given antibiotics for ear infections, which are most likely viral in nature. But when parents ask their pediatrician for antibiotics, many doctors hesitate to say no. They fear lawsuits if something goes wrong with the child.
It is interesting to note that many young children are also sensitive to dairy products. And chronic ear infections in children can be a major symptom of dairy sensitivity. In my own family, one of my nieces had chronic ear infections when she was very young. Her doctor wanted an operation to put tubes in her ears. Fortunately, her parents agreed to my suggestion to take her off the dairy completely for six weeks to see if that helped.
Fortunately, her ears cleared. And by keeping her away from the dairy, she no longer had ear infections. Although unfortunately by this point she had already had many rounds of antibiotics. As Dr. Mark Hyman says, "Dairy products are made for baby cows, not people." Over 75% of the US population have a milk sensitivity, but most don't realize it. And the dairy industry has done a great snow job that we “think” we need dairy products to survive. But that's a different topic for another post.
Caesarean sections and missing microbes
Another thing that can affect our gut microbiome is giving birth via a caesarean section. Babies born vaginally are inoculated with good gut bacteria by their mother when they come through the birth canal. However, new research in countries like Brazil and Italy, where caesarean sections have now become the “normal” birth method, shows that babies born via caesarean sections are lacking microbes. You actually have an abundance of skin bacteria in your gut. And skin bacteria definitely don't belong in our intestines. So if you are considering a cesarean section for convenience rather than an emergency, you may want to take a closer look at how it could affect your child's health in the future. Some forward-thinking doctors are now dabbing the c-section baby's face with vaginal fluid as soon as it's born to give them a more robust intestinal flora.
Dr. Martin Blaser shares much more fascinating information in Missing Microbes about how our microbes are supposed to help us thrive. And how we can help our microbes in return and regain our health in the process. This is honestly one of the most informative books I have read in a long time. And it's written for the layman. Although it is partly concerned with scientific research, everything is written in a fun, easy-to-read style. And it's quite a page turn. Plus, it's only 200 pages, so I can easily finish it in a few days.
What you learn from reading this book will affect your health for the rest of your life. So I highly recommend putting it on your list for Santa Claus!