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The Impact of Human Microflora on Health

Our relationship with our microbiota, the enormous variety of microorganisms that live on and inside our body, lasts throughout our entire lives. The greatest diversity and the highest density of these tiny organisms is found in our gut, which is home to trillions of different bacteria. Our earliest exposure to microorganisms begins in utero and after that, whether in sickness or in health, our lives become inseparable.

It is inconceivable that we are outnumbered by our microbes by 10 to 1 on a cellular level and that the total number of microbial genes exceeds those of the human genome by 100-fold. This raises a curious question: are we more of a microbe or a human being? Indeed, the gut microbiota is regarded as a human microbial organ. In fact, we may even speculate that humans are actually a super organism, a communal collection of human and microbial cells working all together as one.

With regards to considerations of nutrition and health, it looks like we are always talking about our human ‘self’, when it might be more productive to include our microbial ‘self’ in this discussion too. Given the vast extent of research in this area, there can now be little doubt that how our human ‘self’ cooperates with our microbial ‘self’ has deep and far-reaching consequences not only for the health of our gastrointestinal system but also our immune system, metabolic health and even our tendency to weight gain and obesity.

The big question mark now is whether our modern lifestyles have negatively influenced our gut microbiota. Caesarean delivery (as opposed to natural birth which immunizes the baby with the mother’s microflora via the birth canal), lack of breastfeeding (breast milk being an irreplaceable source of probiotics and prebiotics), extensive and frivolous use of antibiotics, especially in childhood, and modern-day diets high in fat and lacking fibre could be mentioned as some of the most significant factors adversely affecting the make-up of our gut micro flora.

And if we conclude that our modern lifestyles are disrupting the quality and integrity of the gut microbiota, what are then the implications?

Actually, such is the significance of our gut microflora for promoting a balanced and tolerant immune system that it has been suggested that the abrupt change (from an evolutionary perspective) in our intestinal microflora could be a major contributing factor to the sharp increase in the incidence of autoimmune disorders observed in the last couple of decades. Paradoxically, whilst most infectious illnesses of the gut in countries of Western culture are now under control, food allergies and chronic inflammatory gut diseases have surged dramatically over the past few decades so that we now have inflammation without infection. Accompanying all of this has been a sharp increase in immuno-allergic diseases, such as eczema and asthma. It is time we started looking beyond the host to find the answers to some of our pressing present day health problems.

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