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The Beneficial Bacteria within – The Human Microbiome
The Human Microbiome: The Beneficial Bacteria Within
Time magazine, Scientific American, and National Geographic have all recently published articles describing exciting new research on the human microbiome, the trillions of bacteria and other microbes that call our bodies home. There are over 1,000 species that make up the human microbiome and all together, they weigh in at about three pounds. Science is showing that these beneficial bacteria play a critical role in the healthy functioning of the body. However, studies also show how easy it is for helpful bacteria to get caught in the crossfire between antibiotics and their intended targets. The wide spread use of antibiotics and other aspects of modern life have significantly altered the human microbiome. There is now strong evidence that the inadvertent destruction of beneficial microbes in the human bacterial ecology is likely a contributing factor in the increase in obesity and immune related diseases in Western society.
The complex ecosystem of the microbiome contains trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that inhabit our skin, genital areas, mouth and especially intestines. These good bacteria in our intestines help us digest our food, particularly our fiber. They help us absorb nutrients like vitamin B12 and biotin. Bacteria throughout the body are part of the defensive team against harmful bacterial overgrowth like staph infections, meningitis, traveller’s diarrhea and more. Good bacteria help the immune system to mature and to maintain a balance between pro and anti-inflammatory immune responses. Therefore, they help prevent allergies and auto-immune responses, where the immune system attacks our own tissues. Good bacteria even help moisturize our skin.
Interesting research shows that even bacteria we associate with disease may be of benefit. Helicobacter pylori is a bacteria that lives in the stomach and is associated with peptic ulcers. Antibiotics that target H pylori reduce ulcers, but are associated with weight gain. It turns out that H pylori is considered part of the normal bacterial lining of the stomach and it helps to regulate ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite. People who take antibiotics for H pylori have higher levels ghrelin, and therefore are predisposed to eating more and subsequently gaining weight. Years ago, 60% of the population carried H pylori. Now only 6% of children have it due to the widespread use of antibiotics for common infections. Could this factor play a role in the epidemic of obesity in our society?
Modern medical practices have radically changed the microbial make up of our bodies and are affecting our health in ways we are just beginning to understand. The overuse of indiscriminate antibiotics is one culprit, as is the increase in c-section deliveries. For thousands of years babies have benefited from receiving their first dose of essential bacteria from vaginal deliveries. The natural birth process gives infants lactobacillales, the bacteria needed to digest milk. C-section babies lack these essential bacteria in their microbiome, and this contributes to allergies and digestive problems.
The increasing rates of allergies, asthma and autoimmunne disease appears to be linked to the changes in our modern microbiome. While genetics play a role in the inheritance of a hyper-active immune system, there is evidence that parents may pass on their altered microbiome as well. (There is an interesting article being presented at a gastroenterology conference I will be attending this spring on the connection between Crohn’s patients and the altered microbiome of their relatives.)
What can an individual do to maintain or enhance their microbiome to ensure optimal health? First, one can take general steps to improve their health and therefore reduce the need for antibiotics. Naturopathic physicians help guide and coach their patients on lifestyle practices that lead to optimal health and on natural medicines to enhance immune function.
Second, when possible avoid the use of antibiotics for infections. In my pharmacology training at UBC, our instructors emphasized that science shows many people overestimate the power of antibiotics to help common infections. For instance, taking antibiotics for strep throat and ear infections reduces the time spent in pain by only a few hours versus placebo while causing significant diarrhea for some people due to the effect of stripping the intestinal microbiome. Naturopathic physicians can prescribe antibiotics but prefer to bolster the body’s own infection fighting mechanisms with natural medicines. Ultimately, having a strong immune system and aggressive early intervention for colds and flus help prevent viral infections from setting the stage for bacterial infections like sinusitis and ear infections.
Third, many of us already have both deficient levels of good bacteria and an overgrowth of harmful organisms that have already taken hold. Antibiotics and other medications can not only strip the good bacteria, but allow for naturally occurring internal yeasts such as Candida albicans to proliferate to unhealthy levels. There are ways to re-establish the healthy microbiome in the body. Naturopathic physicians have been addressing this issue head on for decades and have successful protocols for enhancing their patients’ microbiome. Taking good quality probiotics supplements while reducing the overgrowth of opportunistic harmful bacteria and intestinal yeasts through supervised programs is very beneficial to overall health, energy and immunity.
I am very excited that science now has the tools to explore and understand the human microbiome. In my naturopathic medical practice, I have worked with thousands of patients to improve their internal bacterial environment and have seen the profound impact that doing so has on their health. I look forward to having new tools and protocols to more specifically address chronic autoimmune and digestive issues in the future.
Scientific American, June 2012, The Ultimate Social Network
National Geographic, January 2013, The Secret World of Microbes
Science and Society Journal, Who are we? Indigenous microbes and the ecology of human diseases
Curr. Issues Intest. Microbiol. (2003) 4: 1-8, Studies on Colonization Resistance of the Human Gut Microbiota to Candida albicans and the Effects of Tetracycline and Labtobacillus
Ear Infections – Solve them Forever
A sharp, throbbing or dull pain in the ear, loss of hearing, nausea, vomitting or dizziness characterizes an acute middle ear infection. The pain is due to inflammation, swelling or infection. Acute ear infections are usually preceded by an upper respiratory infection, allergy or food sensitivity. Chronic otitis media is constant swelling affects 20-40% of children under six and account for over 50% of pediatric visits.
Abnormal eustachian tube function is usually the underlying cause. The eustachian tube regulates the pressure in the middle ear and protects it from nose/throat secretions, bacteria and fluids. Swallowing causes active opening of the tube and since it is smaller and more horizontal in children, it is susceptible to blockage. Obstruction leads to accumulation of fluid and an infection if bacteria start to grow. Obstruction results from an abnormal opening mechanism or collapse due to an allergic/sensitivity blockage with mucous or infection.
One of the most common causes of ear infections is food allergies/sensitivities. These lead to inflammation and blockage: they need to be identified quickly using VEGA (electro-accupressure) or Elisa testing (blood) to be accurate and thorough. If the trigger foods can be identified and minimized, recurrent infections can be avoided.
As an infant, breast-feeding is encouraged to develop the immune system, minimize early introduction of food sensitivities, but the suckling develops the muscles, which help drain the tube. Always have the child tilted to feed. Make sure adults smoke outside, since passive smoke increases the incidence. There is typically a seasonal increase in the fall and winter due to increased exposure to viruses and bacteria. Daycare increases the risk again due to increased exposure to colds which cause increased mucous buildup.
It is extremely important to identify any vitamin and mineral deficiencies such as Vitamins C, E and the Bs, Beta carotene, zinc and selenium. Optimal nutrition is very important and supplements may be recommended.
It is also important to strengthen the immune system by avoiding over-consumption of sugar (desserts, Pop, candy, chocolate) and drinking four to six glasses of water. Herbs such as echinacea, garlic, mullein, yarrow, oregon grape, St. John’s Wort and thyme can be used in ear drops or internally.
As you can see, there is no reason to have repeated ear infections and the sooner the cause is determined the happier your child will be!!
Children’s Health – Naturally
Parents all want the best for their children. At no time is this more true than when kids are suffering with health problems. There are many options for parents to help their kids be as healthy as possible.
Ear Infections are a common but distressing illness in children. Once the standard of care, doctors now discourage the use of antibiotics. The Cochrane Review of medical research states that only about 6% of children benefit from taking antibiotics (over just waiting it out) while about 6% of children have serious side effects from them. So what is a parent to do? It is important to address the underlying cause of recurrent ear infections. Often, there is excess mucous and congestion which creates an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. We can “drain the swamp” by eliminating food allergies and promoting good lymphatic drainage during colds. Natural medicines to boost the immune system are also helpful during ear infections.
Bladder infections can be a problem while children are in the process of learning good hygiene. These painful infections can often be be treated with safe natural medicines like d-mannose and cranberry. If antibiotics have to be used, it is essential to repair the intestinal bacterial lining by taking a high quality probiotic formula for a few weeks after treatment.
Allergies to dust, pollen, moulds and pets can be a source of allergic symptoms like sneezing, runny nose and eyes and itchy eyes or throat. There are painless testing techniques, as well as scratch testing, to determine the source of problems. Herbal anti-histamines like nettles and quercitin not only help diminish symptoms, they are also nutritious. Allergy desensitization techniques have evolved from the days of weekly shots and now include oral techniques like Sublingual Immunotherapy.
Eczema can often be very successfully treated when we address the underlying cause and then correct it. Research and experience has shown a strong link between eczema and digestive concerns. By identifying and eliminating food allergies, restoring optimal intestinal flora and providing medical oils most children’s eczema will resolve nicely, without the endless cycle of topical steroids.
Digestive concerns – Nothing is worse than a 2 year old with constipation! Their willfulness is legendary. Taking laxatives long term is not advised, so what else can a parent do to prevent constipation and subsequent painful stools? Again, we have to search for the underlying cause of the problem. The first place to begin is to determine when the problem started, rule out anatomical abnormalities, then identify and eliminate food allergies. We often incorporate safer, natural stool softeners in the early phase of treatment as well as probiotics.
ADHD – Parents want so much to help their children be successful in school but are often wary of the side effects of the Ritalin class of medications for ADHD. What else can be done to improve concentration and learning? The brain is an organ that is affected by nutritional deficiencies, food allergies, and toxic exposure just like any other organ. Behavioural strategies work better when the brain is properly fueled with excellent nutrition and key nutritional and herbal supplements. Every child is treated according to their unique situation, but Bacopa, zinc and iron are promising aids to children’s brain and nervous system function. Specific customized homeopathic prescriptions are also a wonderful tool for unlocking a child’s full potential.
While most naturopathic physicians can prescribe prescription medications for each of these health issues, we prefer to educate parents about their full range of treatment options and endeavor to treat the underlying cause of problems rather than just mask symptoms with medications.
Dr. Deidre Macdonald is a licensed naturopathic physician who has been treating families with naturopathic medicine in downtown Courtenay for 15 years. Contact her office at (250) 897-0235 or via this website.
If this sounds like the care that you’re seeking, we’d love to hear from you.
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Book an appointment with Dr Macdonald by emailing us or calling (250) 897-0235
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The Macdonald Centre for Natural Medicine
448 10th Street Courtenay, B.C.