Thursday, December 3, 2015

We Need Bacteria

Food allergies are on the rise. If we can eradicate smallpox, why are people becoming fatally ill when exposed to food that’s supposed to be good for them? Are we forgetting about some vital aspect of human health?

I learned from Dr. Jack Gilbert at the American Museum of Natural History’s Teen SciCafe, that yes we are neglecting an important aspect of human health.

Well, it’s not exactly human health that we’re forgetting about but the health of the millions of microbes that cover our skin and inhabit every organ of our bodies except the brain. Yes, bacteria are everywhere, and yes they are good for us.

Peanut butter toast and milk, standard snack or a potential hazard?
In our society we are taught that bacteria are bad and we must kill them with soap. While this is true about some bacteria, there are many other microbes that we need to survive.

 Dr. Jack Gilbert and his colleagues have studied differences in sterile mice (mice never exposed to any bacteria) and normal mice (teeming with bacteria). They found sterile mice’s organs wouldn’t develop properly, they had no fight or flight response to stressful situations, and these mice had severe food allergies. When these sterile mice were treated with good bacteria, they regained their fight or flight response and became tolerant of foods that once poisoned them.

Bacteria are amazing, they’ve been on earth for 3.8 billion years, far longer than we have. We evolved to live with and depend on bacteria. Each of us have our own unique microbe colony which influences many bodily functions from weight gain, to food tolerance, to mental health.

Okay, now we know there’s a link between bacteria and health, now what do we do?

Can we use our knowledge to help decrease risk of food allergies? According to Dr. Gilbert the answer is yes, but we might have to change the way the medical field functions. The nature of our modern, western, medical field is one-size-fits-all. We want easy treatments that work the same way on everyone. But, everyone has a unique microbe colony. Treatments that work for me based off my microbe colony might not work for you. Now that we can figure out people’s microbiomes and understand what they mean, it might be time to go back to personalized medicine.

Dr. Gilbert and his colleagues have worked with more personalized microbe therapy for children with food allergies by introducing butyrate-producing bacteria to their intestines. The bacteria helped the children to handle trigger foods better and reduced the severity of the children’s reactions, or even ended the reactions all together.

Bacteria aren’t the cure-all but it’s about time they get attention. At the Teen SciCafe hosted by American Museum of Natural History, microbes were put in the spotlight thanks to Dr. Gilbert’s lecture. We also got to try out a new student designed card game called Gutsy all about microbes in the gut. The card game was the perfect way to set the mood for microbe talk. Now I’m very excited about bacteria! Improving microbial health can have big impacts, such as reducing risk of food allergies, but doesn’t have to be complicated, just spending more time outdoors and eating food rich in good bacteria can improve your microbiome. (Sauerkraut anyone?)