Intestinal flora: hygiene madness and poor diet are undermining the microbiome?

Intestinal flora: hygiene madness and poor diet are undermining the microbiome?

There’s a surprising amount going on in the body. Billions of germs are walking around there. Bacteria, fungi, protozoa – each human being carries at least 1000 different species. Tiny microorganisms colonize the intestines, but also the skin, nose, mouth and genitals. It is in no way disgusting or even harmful, as we know it today. On the contrary, these germs, also known as the microbiome, keep us healthy. But there is a problem.

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“Probably about half of the microbiome in Western countries has now been lost,” says Till Strowig, who studies the protective effect of bacteria in the gut flora at the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research (HZI) in Braunschweig. The problem that researchers are increasingly pointing out is that many people are becoming more susceptible to disease due to the decrease in microorganisms.

A long list of popular ailments is suspected. Metabolic disorders, for example, which lead to obesity, among others. Heart and vascular diseases can also be favored. Likewise, inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatism. A link between food allergies and the gut microbiome is also suspected. So why do microorganisms suddenly disappear?

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Birth, lactation, place of residence: The microbiome develops in childhood

The first five years of life are particularly crucial for the development of the microbiome.

up strwig,

studies the microbiome

It is the human being himself who increasingly repels the protective germs of his life, going through daily life in a more hygienic, sterile and urban way. On the one hand, it has advantages, as Strowig explains. Bad pathogens, such as cold, corona, noro, and flu viruses, are less likely to spread. But there are also disadvantages – good microbiome-relevant pathogens no longer come into contact with the human body. Because it depends on the absorption of bacteria from the environment.

Especially in childhood. “The first five years of life in particular are crucial for the development of the microbiome,” says Strowig. Researchers know that children born by caesarean section develop a different microbiome in their first few months than those born vaginally. When a baby passes through its mother’s birth canal, it ingests a large number of microorganisms for the first time. According to data from the Federal Statistical Office, around 30% of births today end in a caesarean section.

Till Strowig heads the Department of Microbial Immune Regulation at the Helmholtz Institute for Infection Research. His team studies how microbial communities influence infectious diseases and how they can be manipulated to treat disease.

Is a child breastfed or bottle fed? It also plays a role because breastfeeding transfers bacteria and components that nourish the young microbiome. There is indeed great progress in pre-food offers. “But it’s still not the same when it comes to developing the microbiome,” Strowig says of the current state of research.

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How children grow up also plays a role. “Anyone who grows up in a super-sterile environment is less likely to ingest various naturally occurring bacteria,” says Strowig. A little contact with dirt on a daily basis? It definitely has health benefits. Do children play with many different friends or always the same ones in the first years of life? Is their environment heavily sanitized with disinfectants? Did you grow up more urban or rural? Are you taking antibiotics for a long time? All this helps to decide which microorganisms colonize the body during the first formative period of life.

Better Whole Grains Than Potato Chips: Today’s Diet Lacks Fiber

When we eat fiber-rich foods, we give bacteria more substance to grow.

But adults are also implicated in the fact that their microbiome is shrinking more and more these days. They eat less fiber than before, which gives too little nourishment to the good bacteria in the large intestine. Instead, today’s diet means that most easily digestible foods are ingested. “However, many health-promoting bacteria feed on dietary fiber, the components of our diets that humans cannot digest well on their own,” says Strowig. “If we eat fiber-rich foods, we give bacteria more substance to grow.”

Conversely, this also means: The more varied and less processed foods you eat, the more bacteria can find their own niche in the body and the microbiome can be supported throughout your life. Instead of candy, chips and frozen pizza, whole grain products, nuts, fruits, legumes like chickpeas, vegetables like celery, broccoli or even mushrooms should be on the plate. This is recommended by the German Nutrition Society.

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Microbiome destroyed: faeces donations could help

Because once the microbiome is destroyed, there is not a single pill that promotes a reset. After all, new therapeutic approaches are on the horizon. Strowig reports that experiments in which healthy people donate stool samples, which are then transplanted into the destroyed gut flora of sick people or given in capsules, are particularly promising.

Countries like the Netherlands have already had good experiences with such a treatment method. Recurrent Clostridioides dificile infections, for example, could be stopped with a stool transplant. It is an acute intestinal inflammation that occurs mainly in the elderly or during a stay in hospital, often after the administration of antibiotics. In Germany, people are even more hesitant than in the neighboring country. The treatment is not yet generally recommended, which has something to do with approval guidelines, Strowig reports. Clinical studies on stool transplants have multiplied, but also in this country. Such approaches could also help in the treatment of cancer or diseases of the nervous system.

Be careful with stool tests from private providers

You cannot reliably tell with such tests whether that microbiome is good or bad for that person.

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Various private providers on the internet have now jumped on the hype around stool transplants. They offer so-called gut microbiome analyses. The promise? Anyone who sends in a stool sample should get information about the exact links between gut flora and health issues. Sometimes personalized nutritional advice is included. “I don’t recommend doing this,” says scientist Strowig. “You can’t reliably tell with such tests whether that microbiome is good or bad for that person.”

To better understand the interaction of bacteria, this is exactly what research is still working on. It has also not yet been precisely deciphered which fecal donation with which microorganism might be particularly suitable for which patient. This is where the big challenge lies: the composition of microorganisms and the way they protect themselves vary from person to person. Each microbiota is unique.

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