Health Take-Away: Feeding our good gut bacteria keeps us alive

It not just a gut feeling. It's gut science. A rapidly growing body of research into the vast ecosystem of bacteria which reside in our digestive systems — our guts — is teaching us a revolutionary lesson about the role those organisms play in keeping us healthy and alive. Each person's gut contains some 100 trillion bacteria that are vital in breaking down food and toxins, making vitamins and training our immune systems.

Unfortunately, many of the food, medical and lifestyle choices we make today are starving the very system we should be feeding. The continued rise of multiple human health problems, including autism, depression, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity, are being traced to our inattention to this human microbiome.

Caesearean section births don't provide the healthy flora of microbes that strengthen the resilience of newborns passing through the birth canal. Until the moment we're born, we're 100-percent bacteria free. That journey through mother's passageway gives us our first dose of powerful microbes that ultimately sustain our life. Early studies suggest that children born by C-section, now one in three births in the U.S., who are left unbathed in that that microbial mix, have a higher risk of celiac disease, obesity and Type 1 diabetes.

Infant formulas don't provide the rich mixture of healthy microbes, life-sustaining nutrients and natural fibers contained in mother's breast milk. We've known for years that mother's milk is best. It's perfectly designed to feed the child's evolving ecosystem, delivering natural antibodies which help babies resist illnesses. Eight in 10 mothers in the U.S. breastfeed their newborns today, up from around seven in 10 a decade ago, but the number of mothers still breastfeeding after one year drops dramatically to less than 30 percent.

Antibiotics commonly prescribed for infants and children can, over time, lead to antibiotic resistance, diminishing the body's natural ability to fight infection. From birth to age 5, children are given more antibiotics (primarily for ear and throat infections) than any other five-year period in their lives. While parents naturally want to protect their children from such illnesses, doctors increasingly are encouraging parents to let some infections run their course. Over the long-term, the child will grow into a far healthier person.

Unlike today's hyper-sanitized lifestyle, children in past centuries spent more time outdoors, literally "playing in the dirt," and that actually strengthened their bodies' defense mechanisms. Those of us over the age of 50 remember the days of sandboxes, shovels and toy trucks, when we were joyfully covered in dirt by day's end. It turns out that was good for us. Like our primitive ancestors, exposure to microbial-rich soils boosted our immunity and metabolism. Today's children could benefit a lot, socially and microbiologically, by less time at the computer and more time in the great outdoors.

As highly processed foods increasingly dominate our diets, we are experiencing a serious deficiency of plant-based fibers, making us far more susceptible to chronic diseases. Despite years of being encouraged to consume a plentiful variety of fruits and vegetables (five servings a day is the USDA recommendation) fewer than 15 percent of American follow that advice. Over time, eating a low-fiber diet weakens our natural defenses, actually allowing dead bacteria to enter our bloodstreams. The result is a chronic, low-grade inflammation which puts us at greater risk for various chronic diseases and conditions, including obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

The message in all of this is that we need to listen to our guts. Like a garden that needs a good natural fertilizer, we must feed and nurture the beneficial bacteria which give us life.

Mark Pettus, M.D., is director of medical education and medical director of Wellness and Population Health at Berkshire Health Systems.


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