The Postpastuerian Era: We need to learn to live with microbes, not merely try to eradicate them

Many modern conveniences contribute to a significant decrease in the microbial diversity in our environment, our food, and in our guts.

Research tells us that we have co-evolved with microbial communities and that they are integrated in every facet of our biology. Yet we consciously–and sometimes inadvertently–destroy them or try to eradicate them in our daily lives.

Throughout the 20th century many of the modern conveniences we take for granted actually contribute to a significant decrease in the microbial diversity in our environment, our food, and in our guts. Most consumers and much of industry consider bacteria something to eliminate. Consider how often you

  • Use antibacterial soap, laundry detergent, and a whole array of disinfecting household and industrial cleaners.
  • Purchase food that has been treated with heat, chemicals, or other means to eradicate the bugs.
  • Purchase foods sprayed with chemicals to eliminate pests or grown in soil treated to eliminate weeds. Many of these practices serve to decrease microbial diversity as well.
  • Preferentially eat sugar and highly refined starchy foods.
  • Purchase animal products harvested from animals who are given antibiotics as growth enhancers or provided prophylactic antibiotics in their feed. (Thankfully many of these practices are falling out of favor, but more remains to be done.)
  • Use or misuse antibiotics to treat disease (when antibiotics are indicated, we really do need to take the entire dose to avoid cultivating the most resistant strains!)

Learning to Live with the Microbes

Since the publication of findings from the human microbiome project in 2011, we are rapidly learning the many ways microbes impact our health. By eating differently and cleaning differently we directly encourage a healthier and more diverse range of bacteria in our guts.

Indirectly, we impact the number and diversity of microbes when we purchase food. How our food is grown influences the scope of microbial diversity in the environment, especially the ecosystem of soil.

Rethinking What’s Good to Eat

Diet determines about 60% of the mix of microbes that reside in our gut although researchers often disagree about the extent of the impact. The human gastrointestinal tract–from the mouth to the rectum–is colonized with bacteria, with over 700 species found in the mouth alone. It follows that what we eat also feeds the trillions of bacterial cells that we host.

We call the foods that feed the bacteria “prebiotics”. The fiber found in plant based foods seem to the do the best job. In addition, resistant starch found in beans, legumes, whole grains, slightly green bananas as well as cold potatoes and pasta provides the kind of energy that serves both microbes and their host.

The digestion of fiber and resistant starch by microbes results in a rich supply of short chain fatty acids. These acids help maintain the integrity of the gut lining and are important modulators of our immune system.

Rethinking Safe

Traditional foods are enjoying a remarkable resurgence today as we explore the role of microbes and our health. Cultured foods like yogurt and kefir contribute healthy bacteria to the gut while fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchee may contribute hundreds of different healthy microbes.

In addition, a rash of functional foods produced specifically to deliver health promoting microbes have flooded the marketplace. Probiotic drinks and kambucha come to mind. On the supplement side, probiotic and prebiotic products consume more shelf space as they crowd out other products in pharmacies, health food stores, and general supermarkets everywhere.

While consumers rush to replenish their gut microbes, they also need to consider what else they eat and what else they do.

Voting with Our Dollars

Organic foods and foods grown without pesticides or petroleum based fertilizer, allows for a richer microbial flora in the soil and in plants. Farming in a biodynamic system uses microbes to enhance the vitality of everything.

We can eat differently, clean differently, and even influence how our food is grown with our dollars every time we purchase food.

How are you learning to live with the microbes instead of merely trying to eradicate them?

Published on: March 08, 2015
About the Author
Photo of Bonnie Modugno MS RD

Bonnie is a registered dietitian in private practice specializing in energy metabolism, sport nutrition, maternal, infant and child nutrition. You can find more from Bonnie on her blog and on Twitter as @MoreThanFoodInc.

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