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Nature Nut: The battle within still rages

December 9, 2018 GMT

It was a battle that humans engage in often, pitting “good against bad.” In this case, it took place at our week-long Thanksgiving family gathering on the Pacific shores in La Jolla, Calif.

More specifically, the actual battle took place in my gut, and for the better part of three days, the “bad invaders” won. Where they came from, and what they were — virus, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, or unknown — was never ascertained. But, they overcame the “good residents” for four days, until time ruled in my favor and good prevailed.

I remember my microbiologist son-in-law, Gregory Dick, once telling me “we know more about the organisms that occupy the depths of the oceans than those that live in our stomachs and intestines.” However, with advances in his specialty of metagenomics, the DNA sequencing of microorganisms that live on and in us has become more widely researched over the past decade.

Digestive tract microbes have long had a symbiotic (win-win) relationship with many animals. Soon after birth, the human gut is populated by a variety of microbes that influence several bodily functions.

So, what do these good digestive tract bacteria, which may number in the trillions in each of us, do? It has been known for some time that they are essential to digestion of food. But now, we are understanding they may be the key to many aspects of good health, involving several other organs, including the brain.

Most of the time, the good resident microbes can fend off the bad ones, a phenomenon scientists call the barrier effect, which they don’t yet totally understand. But competition for the same source of sustenance has undoubtedly evolved unique strategies for both in this battle.

One of the latest trends in this battle is use of probiotics, pills which contain live microbes to aid in digestion. However, there appears to be no definitive answer if they work, probably a confirmation that the microbe communities are much more complex than we can understand.

What I read scientists are learning about gut microbes is more than I could possibly sort through, or understand, but some key elements did come out. One was that it is clear several popular diets, including Western, gluten-free, omnivore, vegetarian, vegan, and Mediterranean, have been studied for their different effects on intestinal microbes.

The Mediterranean diet is highly regarded as a healthy, balanced diet. It includes olive oil, assorted fruits, vegetables, cereals, legumes, and nuts, along with moderate consumption of fish, poultry, and red wine. It also includes a lower intake of dairy products, red meat, processed meat, and sweets.

In several studies, a Western diet high in animal protein and fat, and low in fiber, led to a marked decrease in numbers of total, and beneficial, bacteria, and has also been associated with production of cancer-promoting chemicals.

With all we know about health related to exercise and diet, it seems the Medical Capital of the World could be more proactive with its patients. Instead of just medically reacting to illness, often related to lack of good exercise and diet habits, maybe physicians could be proactive about giving patients advice and options about diet and exercise.

Perhaps they do, but in my almost 70 years of going to Mayo, I don’t recall it being part of any doctor visit, in spite the fact I suffered from obesity as a child. And, while I mostly overcame that with exercise and sports, my diet has certainly been anything but ideal over the years.

Having more down time than I wanted to during Thanksgiving, thinking about all those hungry microbes also led me to feel I should change my eating habits. I hope to listen more carefully to my friend, Elise, who practices plant-based eating habits, as well rigorous exercise, to maintain an active lifestyle. If so, maybe I could live a longer and fuller life.

Time will tell, but I’m thinking the health phrase “you are what you eat” should probably now be “you are what you feed your microbes.”