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2012-06-14

The Human Microbiome Project Publishes Its Findings

Ok, I really try to find the interesting studies to share, and sometimes they are hard to come by. Other times, there are a number of them and to minimize the onslaught of emails to my subscribers, I try to filter them down to the most interesting. However, this month so far has been full of them. I hope I'm not inundating you, but today I've got a study that will blow your mind, almost like this...


In the last decade or so, we've really started to gain a better understanding of bacteria, and no longer view them as universally bad and evil. In fact, if you haven't been living in an isolated forest for the past 5 years, you'll know that probiotics (the good bacteria) are essential for human health, and we wouldn't be alive without them.

However, besides some studies that show they are essential for human life, digesting food, synthesizing certain vitamins, forming a physical and biochemical barrier against disease-causing bacteria, etc., we didn't know a lot about them. As researchers began to investigate the human-bacteria link in small studies, we began to appreciate their importance. Now we know that not only do the bacteria help keep people healthy, but they also help explain why individuals react differently to various drugs (as I discussed in THIS post last year based on my own research), and why some are susceptible to certain infectious diseases while others are resistant. When the balance of bacteria is disturbed (as with antibiotic treatment, for example), we see how they (or a lack or them) contribute to certain chronic diseases and conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, candidiasis (yeast infections), asthma, eczema, obesity, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, etc. 

Now researchers have taken a detailed look at these bacteria--the over 100 trillion good bacteria that live in or on the human body. 200 scientists at 80 institutions sequenced the genetic material of bacteria sampled from 242 "healthy" individuals in this five-year endeavour called the Human Microbiome Project (which has been compared to the Human Genome Project).

The researchers uncovered more strains than they ever imagined, and each person’s collection of bacteria, termed the "microbiome," was different from the next person’s. As I would expect, they also found disease-causing bacteria lurking in everyone’s microbiome, but instead of making people sick, these "bad" bacteria simply live peacefully within their community. Why did I expected this? I already knew from my own investigations into vitamin K2--it appears that the bacteria that produce K2 in our gut are those that we'd typically classify as pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria. But with a healthy microbiome, they actually seem to offer a health benefit (a probiotic bacteria in small amounts, but pathogenic bacteria when found in large amounts). Get rid of these "bad" bacteria, we significantly reduce the amount of K2 our microbiome creates.

Only with the introduction of relatively cheap and fast gene sequencing methods were the investigators able to study what bacteria are present. It was very difficult previously to do this since the bacteria are so adapted to living on body surfaces or in body cavities (and surrounded by other bacteria), that many could not be cultured and grown in a laboratory setting. Even if they did survive in the lab, taken from their natural environment, they often behaved differently.

This research is expected to change the way we approach medicine and human health--at least on the Conventional/Modern medicine side (I feel the Natural/Traditional Medicine side has known about this, whether intuitively or through research, for...well, a really long time). The microbiome must be considered a part of an individual--a new way to look at "human beings."

The microbiome starts at birth. As I discussed in THIS post last week, babies born by C-section, start out with different microbiomes, and while evidence shows this increases the risk of obesity, we don't know what other short- and long-term health implications this has. As infants pass through the birth canal, they pick up bacteria from the mother’s vaginal microbiome. Over the next few years, the babies’ microbiomes mature and grow in sync with their immune systems, learning these are friendly and not to attack them. This is why the intestines--the largest reservoir of bacteria--also contains about 80% of the immune system.

In fact, most people don't realize that the intestine is not crammed with food; it is stuffed with bacteria--to the point that up to half of your stool is actually not leftover food, but bacteria and their metabolites. Thankfully, bacteria multiply so rapidly that they replenish their numbers as fast as they are excreted. In fact, these little beings are so plentiful, there are 10 times more bacterial cells (living in and on us) than we have human cells!

As for the view that humans (and animals) are just "packaging" or "vehicles" for bacteria, it's quite humbling. Through my research over many years, I've developed an incredible appreciation for bacteria, which have been around for 100s of millions of years before us and inhabit basically every imaginable type of environment on the planet. We really only exist because the bacteria allow us to live. You can almost think of humans, and all eukaryotic (multi-cellular) life to be creations of bacterial intelligence, with the purpose to help them travel further, faster. To help them go about their business of...whatever stuff they do. Even our quest for space travel may just be our bacteria's will to spread beyond our home planet.

Hold up...I think I just blew my own mind. Am I getting too far out there?!  LOL
Evidently, it's not good to be writing this late at night.

As for selection criteria for this study, the challenge was finding completely "healthy" people for the study. They enlisted dentists to probe their gums, look for gum disease, cavities. etc. They had gynecologists examine the women for yeast infections, etc. Other specialist to examine skin and tonsils and nasal cavities. They chose subjects who were not overweight or underweight.

However, they didn't check the subjects' mental/emotional/cognitive state, as there is a link between depression and anxiety and gut flora, and this is why I put "healthy" in quotation marks (since I think there'd be different definitions depending on who you ask).

Anyway, once the subjects were selected (242 men and women determined to be free of recognizable disease in the nose, skin, mouth, gastrointestinal tract and, for the women, vagina), the researchers collected samples from their stool, saliva, gums, teeth, nostrils, palates, tonsils, throats, the crook of the elbow, folds of the ear, and for the women three sites in the vagina.

The investigators re-sampled these men and women three times in total during the course of the study to see if there was any shift in their bacterial composition.

I totally get excited over this kind of stuff...it shows how little we really know, and that's utterly amazing.

Well, I got to get to bed. Mind blown? Subscribe to Know Guff and stay tuned as this fascinating field starts to dig deeper than the surface we're just scratching now.

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1 comment:

  1. Finding "completely healthy people" can be a total challenge but good thing they had more than just collierville dentist and other medical professionals to aid them in that endeavor. Great job guys!

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