There is a war going on inside our bodies.
The human gut microbiome—the bacteria and other microorganisms that live in our guts essential for our survival—is in danger. Overuse of antibiotics, elective cesarean sections and processed foods are just some of the factors that kill these bacteria that we need to live healthy.
In the new documentary film The Invisible Extinction, Dr. Martin Blaser and Dr. Gloria Dominguez-Bello embarks on an adventure to save the microbiome. They talked to PEOPLE about the important work they do to better understand and protect this important part of life.
what is the microbiome And why is it so important?
Dr. Martin Blaser: The microbiome is all the microbes that live in and on the human body. It performs important functions for us. It helps us digest what we eat. It makes vitamins. It protects us against invaders. It trains our immune system. So when we eat, we feed both our human cells and our microbial cells. Most are in the gut, but we also have microbes on our skin, mouth, and vagina.
Where did it originate?
Dr. Gloria Dominguez-Bello: We evolved with him. Every living complex organism on Earth, including animals and plants, has been associated with microbes because bacteria were the first form of life on Earth. We have always co-evolved with bacteria. Microbiome is a name for various microbes that have co-evolved with their hosts (in this case, humans).
Why are you studying the microbiomes of people living in the Amazon?
Dr. Gloria Dominquez-Bello: These are people who are just beginning to be exposed to urban practices and medicine. So these are the survivors, because you can predict deaths where there is no medicine. You fall from the tree, you die. If you break your leg, you will die. One out of every 10 mothers giving birth, a mother or baby dies. So if you survive, you’re truly saved. And these are healthy people because the unhealthy ones died. That’s why we’re so interested in understanding their microbiome. And what we found is that they have a lot more variety. In general, variety is an indicator of health. The more diverse the microbiome, the healthier the ecosystem. We study these to understand what functions are lost in urban areas where the microbiome is at risk.
What is being done with the samples taken from these indigenous peoples?
Martin Blaser: Here’s an example: There’s a nasty infection called C. diff that takes up the gastrointestinal tract. Microbes in the gut are very abnormal and can get out of control. It kills more than 20,000 people a year in the United States. And a few years ago, it was found that if you give these sick people healthy, normal stool back into their system — known as a fecal matter transplant — these people can recover. He established the principle that if you can normalize the microbiome, you can cure a disease. And so, people try it for many other diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, liver diseases, diabetes, and autism.
Tell us more about the possible link between the microbiome and autism.
Dr. Martin Blaser: We know that the rate of autism has increased dramatically over the last 80 years. And this is a disease of early life – it manifests itself in the first few years. And so we’re interested in the idea that the early life microbiome as formed has some connection to the brain. We know that the microbiome speaks to the brain. And for that reason, some researchers have been interested in the idea that an abnormal gut microbiome in early life can have altered speech to the brain, and that this alters brain development.
Why are antibiotics such a problem?
Dr. Martin Blaser: Antibiotics can disrupt the microbiome by inhibiting the growth or destroying the good bacteria we need to live. And the average child in the United States takes almost three courses of antibiotics by age two. When they reach the age of 10, they will have taken 10 courses of antibiotics. But the more courses of antibiotics given, the more likely a child is to develop diseases such as asthma, allergies, diabetes, obesity and autism.
It has long been recognized in the medical profession that we overuse antibiotics. The CDC estimates that about a third of all antibiotic uses are unnecessary, but many scientists believe it is much higher. Take ear infections, for example. We know that viruses are responsible for 70 to 80% of all ear infections. These are viral infections that do not require antibiotics. But when kids go to the doctor for an ear infection, a large percentage of them leave the doctor’s office with a prescription for antibiotics.
Why are C-sections part of this story?
Dr. Gloria Dominquez-Bello: If a baby is born by cesarean section without breaking the water, it will not be exposed to the mother’s microbiome in the vagina. But we have shown that if we at least partially normalize the microbiome of a baby born by cesarean section by rubbing the mother’s microbiome with the gauze soaked in liquid, we can normalize the infant’s oral microbiome at birth. first year of life By doing this, are we protecting children against asthma, Type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, allergies, obesity? We’re doing a 5-year clinical trial to find out.
What role do processed foods play in the microbiome?
Dr. Gloria Dominquez-Bello: The single most important component of the diet to fuel the microbiome is fiber. Fiber cannot be digested by our enzymes. These indigestible components of the diet are very important to us because they feed our microbiome. They remove digestible elements such as fiber in processed foods. They make food much more dense in calories. Sweeter. More salty. And fatter. Basically, it is very unhealthy and lacks fiber, which negatively affects the microbiome.
What can we do about this problem?
Dr. Martin Glaser: People shouldn’t pressure their doctors to prescribe antibiotics because it comes at a cost. They need to go to the doctor for a careful examination and evaluation, not to get a prescription. The doctor might say, “Okay, this is really severe. You need an antibiotic” or “It’s not that bad. Let’s give it some time and see what happens.” And if the doctor prescribes antibiotics, he says, “Are you sure we need it? Should we take antibiotics this time and wait a bit?” And as a society, we need to develop better diagnostic tests so we can tell if a child has a viral or bacterial infection. We need to develop new narrow-spectrum antibiotics that kill every bacterium inside, without much collateral damage. And then of course they should try to eat more fiber and less processed foods and carefully consider having an elective cesarean section.
What are scientists trying to achieve?
Dr. Gloria Dominquez-Bello: We need to preserve the current biodiversity of microbes found in humans everywhere. And this also applies to the environment. We are creating a complete mess in biodiversity, including microbial ones. Microbes are essential in every ecosystem, not only in humans or animals or plants, but also in the oceans. Everything is interconnected by the influence of human activities. We need to protect the microbes because they really change the functions of the Earth. They modulate the climate. They modulate everything. They modulate our own gene expression. Therefore, more efforts are needed to protect, restore microbial biodiversity because we will need restoration. And unfortunately the damage won’t stop instantly.
Invisible Extinction It opens January 6 in NY and LA and will be available on Demand.