Food allergies, asthma, childhood diabetes, obesity, autism, celiac disease and eczema are some of the diseases Dr. Martin Blaser calls our “modern plagues.”
The incidence of these illnesses, generally chronic conditions, has increased alarmingly over the past few decades. Peanut allergies, for instance, were rare one generation ago. Now, most preschools and grade schools have “peanut policies” or “nut-free zones.”
Blaser, a microbiologist, believes we need to understand our microbiome to alleviate these illnesses. A biome is a community of plants and animals that interact in mutually supportive ways. The microbes (bacteria) that thrive in our body constitute the human microbiome, and are fully developed in humans by the time we are three.
Food Allergies and Gut Bacteria
This microbiome is vital to our immunity against disease. Recent research shows the micrbiome is disappearing.
The loss of our bodies microbial diversity is owed the overuse of antibiotics in both humans and animals and the widespread use of antiseptics, sanitizers and Cesarian sections.
“Just as the internal combustion engine, the splitting of the atom, and pesticides all have had unanticipated effects, so too does the abuse of antibiotics and other medical or quasi-medical practices (e.g., sanitizer use),” Blaser writes in his book, Missing Microbes.
Blaser does not demonize antibiotics, but rather points out that the broad-spectrum antibiotics we have generously used on ourselves and allowed into our food are having an ill-effect on our well-being. What is needed are antibiotics that target specific bacteria without destroying the necessary flora our health depends on. Science has the genetic information and technology to develop these targeted medicines.
We Can Change This
The research Blaser has done, and is still doing, shows that exposure to antibiotics early in life creates microbiome changes that can have lifelong effects. For instance, the loss of gut bacteria through early exposure to antibiotics can trigger obesity in laboratory mice.
Blaser presents his concerns and research in his highly readable book not to give us another thing to worry about, but to reverse the damage we have already done to ourselves. He hopes to reduce the overuse of antibiotics now by making the public more aware of broad-spectrum antibiotic consequences.
While not all of us are interested in the fate of intestinal bacteria, most of us do care about our health and that of our children, grandchildren and their children. If Blaser is correct, and he has been studying this for more than 30 years, we all need to pay attention to the long-term effects of antibiotics on our system.
Blaser is the director of the Human Microbiome Program at New York University.