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Dr Duncan

The human body continues to amaze!

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If you haven’t heard of the Microbiome yet, you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren that you first read about it on the HBF webpage in 2013: because you’re going to hear a great deal more about the Microbiome in the months and years to come!
 
For centuries anatomists have looked at the human body and defined the various systems that control it, such as the nervous system, the circulatory system, the immune system and so on. But now scientists have discovered a whole new operating system inside, and on our bodies that may well have huge implications for how we take care of ourselves, and what sort of medicines we should be using for infections and other invasive diseases in the future.

But firstly, what is the Microbiome?

Literally, there is more to us than meets the eye! For example, one of the quirky facts that most people know about the human body is that it is made up of about 70% water, and that the solid bits are made up of all sorts of different cells. Some would also know that we have various germs living on our skin and in our intestines. All good so far: but if you count up the cells that are human as a percentage of the total cells that make up our “body”, then you might be surprised to discover that only 6% of those cells are actually “human” - the rest make up what is now called the Microbiome. But being much smaller than human cells, these bacterial cells only weigh the same as the average human brain. As it turns out, there are over 1000 different bacterial species within our mouths, 150 behind your ear and several thousand within the intestinal tract! And that amounts to a huge biodiversity and a vast amount of genetic material, far in excess of that within our own human genome!
 
Up until recently, no one really took much notice about all these harmless germs in the system until epidemiologists worldwide became alarmed about the worrying trends of obesity, diabetes, asthma, coeliac and other diseases that are sky-rocketing in the developed world, for reasons that are still not fully explained. However, scientists are now looking at the link between the rise of these conditions and the introduction of antibiotics around 50 years ago. Taking antibiotics has always been seen to be a “good idea” because they fight infection - right? Well, mainly yes but also partly no because although doctors always knew that taking antibiotics also killed of “harmless cells” within our intestines, this wasn’t of much concern at the time. Now of course, we have a serious problem with antibiotic resistance and drug companies worldwide are finding it increasingly difficult to find new drugs to fight these multi-drug resistant bacteria. But the other problem that comes with our past love affair with antibiotics is that those “harmless” bacteria in our intestines may be there for more than just the scenery!
 
Experiments done on mice have shown that when you alter the bacterial profile within the gut, you get more of a particular type of bacteria living there which allows these mice to extract more calories from their diet and thus get fatter. The question then arises, is this happening in humans too? Other research on rodents has shown that if their guts are deficient in certain bacteria in the early stages of their lives, then their brain development is affected permanently. Add this to the fact that children who have been given antibiotics in the first 6 months of life are 22% more likely to be overweight as toddlers, and that young people will have had 20 courses of antibiotics before they reach the age of 18, then we should all sit up and take notice!
 
None of these figures in themselves are proof that antibiotics cause any of these diseases, but it does highlight the previously unknown importance of the Microbiome. And before you rush off and buy the latest and best probiotic to protect your insides, a word of caution. Nearly all the bacteria contained in those probiotics have probably been in your diet all your life. Probiotics need to be taken continually - stop for a couple of days and you lose any mooted benefits. But in the future, it may well be that fine-tuning of such probiotics with specific bacteria may well be a new avenue of treatment for gut based diseases that may not only affect the intestines, but have a wider impact on the rest of the body too.
 
The Microbiome is an exciting adventure in science as we discover a new “system” at work within our bodies. All of us can have an impact on this system by being aware of what we expose our skin to in the form of “disinfectants” and “anti-bacterial” soaps: and what we put into our guts in the forms of food and beverages. We should also be acutely aware that whilst antibiotics are powerful medicines which have saved millions of lives over several generations, they can cause collateral damage to the finely balanced population of bacteria that are doing their bit to keep our body balanced and healthy.

Article written by Dr. Duncan Jefferson. More articles here. For more information on health care and private health cover, visit HBF Insurance at www.hbf.com.au.

The content of these articles is not tailored for any particular individual's circumstances. The author does not take into account your physical condition, medical history or any medication you may be taking. Any advice or information provided by the author cannot replace the advice of your health care professional. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent those of HBF unless clearly indicated.

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