Microbes, antibiotics and *YES* you should still eat organic

A few months ago, I attended an updated talk – to one presented a couple of years ago – by Victoria gastroenterologist Dr Denis Petrunia. For the most part, Petrunia has what seems to me a very enlightened view of the interior life of his patients, in that he is a firm believer in the power of beneficial bacteria upon health.

Coincidentally I was sent a link to this talk on the microbiome and aging, which mentioned one of the books that is a bit of a touchstone for me on the role of antibiotics on health. In Missing Microbes, Martin Blaser explains how medical demolition of H. Pylori – linked to stomach cancer and ulcers – may be causing multiple other problems, as we don’t fully understand the role H. Pylori has played in its coexistence in the human gut for over 5,000 years.

It’s a book I often recommend (including on this blog) as Blaser’s idea stands as a  strong example of how a single well-intentioned procedure can have far reaching and potentially catastrophic effects on human health. Or, as I think every scientist and engineer ought to have tattooed on their hearts: Humans just don’t know enough to properly mimic nature.

I also think Blaser’s observations about the over-use of antibiotics on children are incredibly valuable. We know these wipe out beneficial as well as pathological bacteria. So doing this with abandon to youthful microbiomes that are at a particularly vulnerable stage of development is inevitably going to adversely affect those functions that beneficial bacteria perform on our health. These include (but won’t be limited to!) weight control, immunity and mental health. We need to remember how recently we’ve learned about the microbiome, and how much more we are learning about its role in our lives, with every day and research paper being published.

At his talk, Petrunia brought another book to my attention this time: 10% Human: How Your Body’s Microbes Hold the Key to Health and Happiness, by Alanna Collen. Another fascinating read. And it did raise a disturbing issue: that antibiotics from factory farming are finding their way even into organic vegetables, through the use of non-organic manure by organic farmers.

There is a loophole in organic farming in Canada, whereby if you document your failed efforts to find organic manure, you may then use manure from conventionally-reared animals. These may or may not have been factory farmed, or dosed with antibiotics, antifungals or other pharmaceuticals. The farmers I have met go to some lengths to document, from the animal owners, the use of pharmaceuticals (e.g. worming treatments in horses) on the source of the manure.

But according to Collen, animals (who are given anywhere from 50 to 80% of the antibiotics made or imported to Canada, depending on whose numbers you use) excrete in their urine and manure around 75% of these antibiotics. That manure, even after composting, can then produce food plants that contain antibiotics.

Unfortunately, Petrunia used this as an argument not to bother eating organic food. It’s an argument I’ve heard from many in conventional medicine who seem willfully uninformed as to the nature of what goes into conventionally grown foods, and the reasons people choose to buy organic. At least it sounds so to me, who probably knows too much, as I keep updating my course materials for CSNN‘s EcoNutrition class, and spend a lot of my spare time on projects for the certified organic Haliburton Farm.

Here are some reasons I think you should try to keep eating certified organic foods, as much as you can manage:

And as for the antibiotics: this is why we vote and lobby our governments for ever-stricter limits on use. Antibiotic resistance is already one of the key medical problems of our time, and it’s not going to get any better. Developing stronger antibiotics is only postponing, not solving, the problem.

Contact your local, regional and national government reps today!

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Sweet and loaded

SweetenersArtificial sweeteners are typically off the list of foods recommended by holistic nutritionists for many reasons. Historically these have largely been to do with neurological, metabolic or carcinogenic concerns.

Here’s a new mouse study on Sucralose (trade names Splenda, Zerocal, Sukrana, SucraPlus, Candys, Cukren, Nevella) which says that it probably does cause or contribute to tumour growth. As we have been learning in recent years, gut bacteria in the human microbiome are instrumental in protecting us from pathogens, including carcinogens.

We’re also finding that artificial sweeteners are causing glucose intolerance – meaning they likely play a role in actually causing Type 2 Diabetes. This is due to their role in altering the gut microbiome.  In a troubling irony, artificial sweeteners remain in the dietary recommendations of the Canadian Diabetes Association, declared safe by Health Canada.

Which is one of the problems with the speed of knowledge advancement in science. We’ve only been aware of the importance of the human microbiome for a matter of years, not even decades, so it’s no surprise that public health policy can’t keep up.

But it’s not just our health we’re risking. Some of these sweeteners pass through the human digestive system – which is one way they don’t affect our blood sugar – and end up in our water systems, through the wastewater treatment system, which doesn’t screen them out. This means they’ll also end up in soil and groundwater.

So really. If these synthetic substances are probable carcinogens, cause glucose intolerance, and are harmful to our own gut bacteria, it seems pretty irresponsible to be sharing them with the wild aquatic and bacterial populations in our environments. A failure of holistic thinking, as usual, at work here, as we also don’t know to what extent these substances will work their way through the food chain, or what effects there may be upon the ecosystems affected.

The only viable alternative to artificial sweeteners, so far, is stevia extract, but even here there are cautions. Avoid highly processed, flavoured or alcohol-based versions: go for the purest version you can find. You may even wish to grow it yourself, and dry and grind the leaves.

Gutsy bacteria

Missing MicrobesThe human microbiome is hot stuff these days. Hard to imagine we have only gained some understanding of its existence and importance since the Human Microbiome Project kicked off in 2008. Beneficial gut bacteria, it turns out, are very hard to study because they live an anaerobic (oxygen-free) life in our intestinal tract. It was only when their DNA could be studied (metagenomics) that we began to understand how big a deal they were in human health. A very big deal indeed, as they are thought to number in the trillions. Our understanding of their diverse identities can barely be described as sketchy.

I’ve been browsing my way through Missing Microbes. I love this book. Its author, Martin Blaser, is an MD who has been researching a much discussed bacterium, Heliobacter Pylori, for over 30 years. H. pylori, which has colonized the human gut for more than 50,000 years, was determined by the winners of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology to be the cause of peptic ulcers which had previously been ascribed to stress. The bacterium has also been associated with stomach cancer.

But Blaser also believes H. pylori plays an important immunological role, and that our all-out antibiotic assault on it may be costing us in more ways than the increasing rates of antibiotic resistance which the Nobel winners had also predicted. Blaser and others speculate that since its loss in Western populations correlates to increases in autoimmune disorders, there may be more to this ancient bacterium that has for so long co-existed in the human gut. Adults who lack H. pylori may also be more susceptible to reflux (GERD) and heartburn that can themselves lead to esophageal cancers. And there is some evidence that it protects against allergies and asthma in childhood.

Blaser has a lot to say about antibiotic use in modern medicine as well as modern farming, and how these have contributed to making the modern microbiome a biological desert, and landed humans in a completely new and dangerous medical landscape.

As his book’s subtitle suggests, Blaser believes that antibiotic use has contributed to many of our modern ills.  His work on antibiotics and obesity suggested that antibiotics administered in childhood may have the same effect farmers look for in their meat animals: accelerated growth, making them taller and fatter.

North American children are typically exposed to around 17 courses of antibiotics by the time they are 20, and another 13 by the time they are in their 30s. This doesn’t include the antibiotics they may receive from their mother through the placenta or breast milk, nor those consumed in drinking water, milk and meat. Children born of C-sections are also deprived of protective maternal bacteria from vaginal birth, and subject to direct or indirect antibiotics.

We don’t know yet what will be the long term effects of so many antibiotics on a developing brain and immune system in children, nor on public health as a whole. There are a lot of troubling correlations: people who used antibiotics in the month before a salmonella outbreak in Chicago got sicker than those who didn’t. Exposure of children to broad-spectrum antibiotics in the first two years of life (notably –mycin drugs) is associated with lifetime obesity. A Swedish study found a clear association between celiac disease onset following antibiotic use. Antibiotics impair our ability to excrete estrogen, leading to the modern ills of estrogen dominance (which affects men and children as well as women). Even short courses of antibiotics may permanently change our unique, personal microbiome, and there is no known way to permanently reinstate what’s been lost – even if we knew what that was.

Not all beneficial bacteria – or, like H. pylori, those that demonstrate amphibiosis, being sometimes beneficial and other times not – can be re-colonized into the human gut over the long term. H. pylori, for example, which is not just one but a family of microbes, is acquired in infancy and childhood in conditions that typically no longer exist in the Western world. (Blaser stresses replacing the term “infection” with “colonization” when speaking of our microbes. Since we have co-existed with some – like H. pylori – for millennia, the only thing we know for sure is that we don’t fully understand our biological history with them.)

Meanwhile, says Blaser, we can start by avoiding antibiotics wherever possible, particularly broad-spectrum ones that cause too much collateral damage. Avoiding c-section births except in medical emergencies, and re-evaluating the prophylactic use of antibiotics where c-sections are required would help protect children. Discussing with a pediatrician whether antibiotics are the appropriate first course of treatment for childhood ailments  is crucial. Lobby for policies preventing the use of antibiotics in farming and meanwhile avoid conventionally raised meat and dairy. He’s lukewarm on probiotic supplements, prebiotics, and their hybrid synbiotics, mainly because we simply don’t know which bacteria are crucial, and there is little research and no standards for production. Fecal transplants are helpful for some conditions (but not DIY versions where the donor has not been screened for medical risks to the recipient).

Meanwhile, the research into this essential biological mystery is exploding in the scientific world. Let’s hope we can get enough scientific leverage on political will to reverse some of the excesses of antibiotics before we’ve killed off all that aids us.