New finding: Sanitation practices may play a bigger role than antibiotics in gut microbial diversity

Just sharing a link to a story on NPR News covering new studies on the gut microbiome.

Here’s a summary: Modern Western guts are missing microbes that exist in the guts of hunter-gatherer people.

Western diets and modern-day hygiene have wiped a few dozen species right out of our digestive tracts. One missing microbe helps metabolize carbohydrates. Other bygone bacteria act as prebiotics. And another communicates with our immune system.

The big question is why. 

One group, a Yanomami tribe in the Amazon basin, had had no previous contact with modern culture and was unexposed to antibiotics.

Another indigenous group, some Papua New Guineans, had regularly been given antibiotics for infections.

Both groups had vastly more microbial species living in their guts than modern Americans do.

So even though antibiotics kill some species of gut microbes, and children are more vulnerable…

“Antibiotics kill bacteria in the gut, and sometimes species don’t come back,” Dominguez-Bello says, “This is especially true with children, whose microbiomes are in the process of getting assembled. Impacts on the microbiome at a young age can have long-lasting consequences.”

…the Papua New Guineans, exposed to antibiotics, still had a high level of microbial diversity as the Yanomami.

The article is saying that taking antibiotics may not make a huge difference in gut diversity, but modern sanitation practices do. Neither group had sewage and clean water control.

That’s the trade-off.

“We don’t want to romanticize life in Papua New Guinea,” he says. “They may have much lower incidences of allergies and autoimmune diseases. But they are actually less healthy than people in Western societies. Their life expectancy is lower, and their infant mortality rate is high because of infections and parasites.”

At some point, I hope, we may have access to the best of both worlds.

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