Tuesday 9 September 2014

Be kind to your intestinal flora

If I tell you that the "average" cell in your body is 30μm [There are 1000 μm in 1 mm] in diameter (red blood cells are comparatively small at 8μm) you can do the order of magnitude maths to work out that there are about 100 trillion cells about your person. Correction, there are 100 trillion cells that have 46 chromsosomes with the characteristically human DNA, but you're also lugging around 200 trillion cells which are much smaller and much more diverse: maybe as many as 10,000 different species.  Most of these free-loaders inhabit your guts mostly the large intestine,  Correction, they are not free-loaders - they play an essential part in your health and well-being; responsible for generating vitamins and other micro-nutrients and, simply by being, keeping  under control some of the pathogens that could make you "give at both ends".  I've written before about how you're likely to acquire a real crappy (sic . . . and sick too) infection with Clostridium difficile if/when you go into hospital and get treated with antibiotics.  I've also reported that, if you trick about with the delicate balance inside, you're more likely to become obese.  Actually, I don't care about you, you're almost certainly old enough to vote and make an informed decision [read The Blob for starters!] about whether to take a course of antibiotics because you have a viral chest infection.  I do care about your children, because your anxiety to do something about a usually trivial ailment may finish up costing your child and/or his health-care providers thousands of $$ from the consequences of being grossly over-weight.  I've also given you a forward looking argument to limit the amount of augmentin your chap consumes because he may need it later . . . say when he goes to college and gets a touch of the pox.

This is all to soften you up for another bitter blow about the importance of maintaining and not broad-spectrum-blatting your microbiome, as we are now calling the intestinal flora.  Tsk tsk, it's not really about you, it's about your children and theirs. I perked up when kottke spoke about the connexion between food allergy and antibiotics and followed the link to Science, where there is an essay about the relationship which starts by claiming that the rate of food allergy has increased by 50% in the last 17 years. Wow!  I've had a strong tendency to put most food "allergy" down to neurotic fussiness in more or less healthy people who want a reason for their sniffles, and can afford to be picky about their food.  A "first world problem" as my pal P called similar obsessions.  Food allergy really exists: I've seen friends whipping out an epi-pen and stabbing themselves in the thigh as their lips started to tingle.

Now we need some fundamental research to identify the species of bacteria (or the mini-ecosystem of mutually supportive bacteria) which can handle the common allergens like peanuts, gluten, and lupin. The Science article suggests that other species of Clostridium can deal with peanuts: a very common cause of inappropriate immune reaction.  Not Clostridium difficile which can so far only be tamed by a fecal transplant which is wildly unspecific but effective nor Clostridium botulinum which is frighteningly toxic. No, you want some other Clostridium, the one which seems to be able to prevent the peanut proteins from leaving the gut to be presented to the immune system.

I think The Institute is doing well to be training youngsters up in Food and Fermentation Microbiology - they'll be a) useful and b) employable in the future, because they'll have the skill set to identify which species they have grown up in the lab and just where they might be useful.  In the mean time, please go easy on the antibiotics - it's really difficult to get back to the status quo ante after you've killed most of the bacteria in your gut to cure an ear-ache.

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