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The “Microbiota” Factor

microbiotaThe Simms/ Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology has a lecture series that features top physicians, researchers and educators open to the community. This week, I attended a lecture on wellness, the immune system and the gastrointestinal microbiota (the term microbiota replaces “gut flora,” which refers to the tens of trillions of bacteria that reside in the intestinal tract). Carolyn Katzin, MS, CNS and Robert Schiestl, PHD were the presenters.

What is the really big news? We have discovered a new inner world in our gut called the microbiota. The shear numbers of microbes or bacteria in our bodies dwarf our total number of cells 10 to 1. If we look at the total genetic information we carry, 99 % of it is microbial. This second genome of bacteria exerts an influence on our health as great or greater than the genes we inherit from our parents. Part of the excitement about the intestinal microbiota, is that unlike inherited genes, it may be possible to shape or cultivate this second genome for health benefits through diet and supplements.

What does this mean? We know 60 to 70 % of our immune system resides in our intestines and we believe there is a symbiotic relationship between gut and the microbes. We know there are somewhere between 500 to 1000 species of bacteria in our gut most of which we are unable to culture and study so far. It is truly a new frontier and scientists have more questions than answers when it comes to predicting specific health benefits.

What we know so far. We have learned that we can do a fecal microbial transplant for an antibiotic resistant c. diff. intestinal infection and cure the disease within a matter of hours. C. Diff. is dysentery like intestinal infection that 14,000 Americans die from annually. We can transplant the microbiota from obese mice to skinny mice and make them fat. We can also transplant skinny mice microbiota and make obese mice skinny. We can increase the longevity of mice bred to develop lymphoma by restricting their microbiota. There have also been some studies linking certain kinds of intestinal microbiota to depression and moods. Scientists believe our resident microbes appear to play a critical function in modulating our immune system.

Diversity is better. It is ironic that as a civilization we have almost 100 years of intentional destruction of our human microbiota with antibiotics and pasteurized, processed food. How do we best cultivate an individualized healthy microbiome? Scientists think more diversity of microbes is makes are immune system more resilient. This is where probiotics, prebiotics and symbiotics play an important role in cultivating a healthy microbiota.

Fermented food- the new, old food group. Symbiotics are the fermented foods you can make or buy. Fermented foods include yogurt, kefir, sourdough bread, cured olives, buttermilk, grass fed cheese, miso, pickles, soy sauce, chocolate, kombucha, kimchi, vinegar, salami, beer, wine, and vegemite. Cheap, industrial food made in large quantities tends to be pasteurized which kills the bacteria to extend shelf life. So when looking for fermented foods, look in the refrigerated section of your grocery or health food store to get food with live cultures.

Probiotics are living microorganisms you can buy as a supplement. We don’t know enough to know which kinds or the total count of live cultures you need to take each day. UCLA oncology specialist, Carolyn Katzin, MS, CNS recommends you buy and consume before the best buy date on the labeling as after the best buy date the majority of live bacteria cells are dead. Check label for refrigeration instructions.

Prebiotics are the food or fuel for the bacteria. The best fuel for you microbiota is plant based fiber which includes fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Other microbiota considerations. Discuss the effects of antibiotics on your microbiotia with your doctor before starting an antibiotic. Reconsider using hand sanitizers routinely. In the US, we have allowed the use of antibiotics since the 1950s to increase weight of pigs, chickens and beef. Eating organic meat avoids exposure to antibiotics.

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