Does hygienic mania and poor nutrition cause a decrease in microbiome?

There is a surprising amount going on in the body. Billions of bacteria roam there. Bacteria, fungi, protozoa – each person carries at least 1000 different species. Small microorganisms colonize the intestines, but also the skin, nose, mouth and genitals. This is by no means disgusting or even harmful, as we know today. These germs, also known as the microbiome, tend to keep us healthy. But there is a problem.

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“About half of the microbiome in Western countries is probably lost now,” said Till Strowig, who is studying the protective effect of bacteria in the gut flora at the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research (HZI) in Braunschweig. The problem that scientists are increasingly pointing out is that many people are becoming more susceptible to disease due to declining microorganisms.

A long list of folk ailments is suspected. For example, metabolic disorders that lead to obesity, among other things. Cardiovascular diseases can also be supported. As well as chronic inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatism. There is also a suspicion of a link between food allergies and the intestinal microbiome. So why do microorganisms suddenly disappear?

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Childbirth, breastfeeding, residence: Microbiome develops in childhood

The first five years of life are especially crucial for microbiome development.

To Strowig,

examines microbiome

It is the man himself who is increasingly pushing the germ out of his life, going through everyday life in a more hygienic, sterile and urban way. On the one hand, it has advantages, as Strowig explains. Bad pathogens, such as cold viruses, coronaviruses, noro and influenza viruses, are less likely to spread. But there are disadvantages – good pathogens relevant to the microbiome no longer come into contact with the human body. Because it depends on the absorption of bacteria from the environment.

Especially in childhood. “Especially the first five years of life are crucial for microbiome development,” explains Strowig. Researchers know that babies born by caesarean section develop a different microbiome in the first months than babies born vaginally. When a baby goes through the mother’s birth canal, it ingestes a large number of microorganisms for the first time. According to the Federal Statistical Office, however, about 30 percent of births end with caesarean sections today.

Till Strowig heads the Department of Microbial Immune Regulation at the Helmholtz Institute for Infection Research.  His team is studying how microbial communities affect infectious diseases and how they can be manipulated to treat diseases.

Till Strowig heads the Department of Microbial Immune Regulation at the Helmholtz Institute for Infection Research. His team is studying how microbial communities affect infectious diseases and how they can be manipulated to treat diseases.

Is the baby breastfed or bottle-fed? This also plays a role, because breastfeeding transmits bacteria and components that nourish the young microbiome. There is really a lot of progress in the offer of starters. “But it’s still not the case when it comes to microbiome development,” Strowig said of the current state of research.

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The way children grow up also plays a role. “Everyone who grows up in a super-sterile environment is less likely to see a variety of natural bacteria,” says Strowig. A little contact with dirt in everyday life? It definitely has health benefits. Do children play with many different friends in the first years of life or always with the same? Is their environment heavily disinfected with disinfectants? Do you grow up more in the city or in the countryside? Do you take antibiotics for a long time? All this helps to decide which microorganisms colonize the body in the first formative period of life.

Better whole grains than chips: Today’s diet lacks fiber

When we eat high-fiber foods, we give the bacteria more substance to grow.

But adults are also involved in the fact that their microbiome is shrinking more and more nowadays. They eat less fiber than before, giving the good bacteria in the large intestine too little food. Instead, today’s diet means that mostly easily digestible foods are ingested. “However, many healthy bacteria feed on bulk feed, a component of our diet that humans cannot digest well on their own,” explains Strowig. “If we eat high-fiber foods, we give the bacteria more substance to grow.”

On the contrary, it also means: The more varied and less processed foods you eat, the more bacteria can find their own place in the body and the microbiome can be supported throughout your life. Instead of sweets, chips and frozen pizza, the plate should not lack whole grains, nuts, fruits, legumes such as chickpeas, vegetables such as celery, broccoli or mushrooms. This is recommended by the German Nutrition Society.

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Destroyed microbiome: Fecal donations could help

Because once the microbiome is destroyed, there is no pill to support a reset. After all, new therapeutic approaches are in the pipeline. Strowig says that experiments in which healthy people donate stool samples, which are then transplanted into the destroyed intestinal flora of sick people or given in capsules, are particularly promising.

Countries like the Netherlands already have good experience with such a treatment method. For example, recurrent Clostridioides dificile infections could be stopped by stool transplantation. This is an acute inflammation of the gut, which occurs mainly in the elderly or during a hospital stay, often after antibiotics. In Germany, people are even more hesitant than in a neighboring country. Treatment is not generally recommended yet, which has something to do with approval guidelines, Strowig said. Clinical studies on stool transplants have increased, but also in this country. Such approaches could also help in the treatment of cancer or diseases of the nervous system.

Be careful with stool analyzes from private providers

With such tests, you cannot say reliably whether this microbiome is good or bad for this person.

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Various private ISPs have now jumped the hype surrounding stool transplants. They offer so-called intestinal microbiome analyzes. Promise? Anyone who sends a stool sample should be informed of the exact relationship between intestinal flora and health problems. Sometimes personalized nutrition counseling is included. “I don’t recommend doing it,” says scientist Strowig. “With such tests, you can’t say reliably whether this microbiome is good or bad for this person.”

Research is still working on this to better understand the interaction of bacteria. It has also not yet been precisely decreed what fecal donation with which microorganisms might be particularly suitable for which patient. This is a great challenge: how microorganisms are composed and how they protect each other varies from person to person. Each microbiome is unique.

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