While it’s common knowledge that we inherit our genes from our parents — a.k.a. our “first genome” — our “second genome” is rarely talked about. This ‘second genome’ is the trillions of microbes that are living in our bodies, everywhere from our skin, to tongue, to intestines. These microbes have an immense impact on our health, perhaps even greater than the genes from our parents. For instance, our microbes act as managers for our immune systems, and are partially responsible for ascertaining between the good and bad that enter our bodies. Interestingly enough, while we can’t do much to change what our parents gave us, we can have a great influence on our microbiota and microbiomes.
Scientists look at our microbriota as ecosystems: all our microbes interact with each other and their environment. Disorders within this ecosystem – such as too little diversity or an excessive amount of the “wrong” type of microbes — have the potential to cause obesity, chronic diseases and other infections. Scientists also believe that diet and environment have led to an increase in autoimmune diseases in the West.
The American Gut Project’s aim is to sequence as many American guts as possible, hoping to answer the question of what effects our microbiota — diet, antibiotics, pathogens, environment, cultural traditions? — and determine its “normal” state, if there even is one.
While scientists can’t really say what a “healthy” microbiome looks like, they can pinpoint certain traits and patterns that healthier microbiomes have. Possessing a diverse set of microbes is better and something Westerners don’t necessarily have, due to processed foods, environmental toxins and overuse of antibiotics. Certain ailments and diseases, such as allergies, asthma, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, plague the West more than less-industrialized areas. Your microbiota like unprocessed foods — less processed foods have a better chance of getting through the gastrointestinal tract and to the microbiota.
Children in the West are given an average of 10-20 antibiotic treatments before the age of 18; and this isn’t the only way antimicrobials are reaching the microbiota: antibiotics exist in meat, milk and surface water. Farmers feed antibiotics to their livestock so that they gain weight, and they often come in the form of medicated feed and water.
There are some things microbiologists suggest that can help with managing you and your children’s microbiomes:
- Don’t immediately jump to antibiotic treatments unless medically necessary.
- Cleanliness is not always next to godliness: take your children outside to play in the dirt more often.
- Cut back on processed foods.
- Eat more foods that contain probiotic bacteria: yogurt, kimchi and sauerkraut are good starting points.
- While you should still wash produce that is likely to have pesticide residue, you should, for example, not wash your hands after petting your dog or cat.
In other words, the world will be a more sustainable place to live healthy and happy lifestyles if people in developed nations adapt some of the habits of their ancestors, as practiced today in developing nations. We do not have to worry about people in developing nations adapting habits of developed nations — it is already happening rapidly!
Conceived, Developed and Written by Dr. Subodh Das and Tara Mahadevan
May 22, 2013
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