A Wakeup Call for Our Dying Microbiome
Enough warning signs have arisen that researchers are raising the alarm to fix, protect, and preserve the human microbiome—the flora made up of symbiotic microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi that live on the skin and in the body. At least 70 percent of the immune system resides in the gut microbiome.
“Paying attention to the microbiome is crucial moving forward because it is disappearing. It’s disappearing because the diversity is disappearing,” Dr. Sabine Hazan told The Epoch Times.
Hazan is the founder and CEO of ProgenaBiome, a genetic sequencing research laboratory that, in the company’s words, is trying to “crack the genetic code of a trillion bacteria, fungi and viruses that live in our gut.” She’s a specialist in gastroenterology, internal medicine, and hepatology.
“The microbiome is trillions of microbes that once you’ve killed them, it’s very difficult to regrow what you’ve killed,” she said.
Of particular concern to her is Bifidobacterium, a genus of anaerobic bacteria that are among the first microbes to populate the human gastrointestinal tract in infants. They’re foundational to immunity and are believed to have many health-promoting properties such as metabolic processes that ward off infection by synthesizing vitamins, strengthening the intestinal barrier, stimulating hormones, and keeping inflammation at bay. The good news is that they’re fairly hardy and adaptable; the bad news is that they can be depleted rapidly—something illustrated on a mass scale with COVID-19.
Three years of study have revealed that COVID-19 is diminishing our healthy gut bacteria, which play an important role in battling viral attacks on the body, but the full extent of damage is unclear and recovery is unknown. Early evidence from one of Hazan’s studies suggests messenger RNA vaccines are also reducing bifidobacteria, adding to a growing list of health risks associated with the controversial technology.
Because the microbiome is a relatively new health frontier, some contextual clues are yet missing. What is known based on studies that compare the microbiome in industrial versus rural communities is that our gut flora is largely determined by our environment and choices. As Americans, we’ve modified our lifestyles with more processed diets, sedentary jobs, sanitation, alcohol, and medication, and our gut has responded with more disease and illness. COVID-19 amounted to pouring gasoline on a fire.
Just before the pandemic, Drs. Erica Sonnenberg and Justin Sonnenberg (both from Stanford University) published an article suggesting that the industrialized world may be “harboring a microbial community … incompatible with our human biology.”
“Rapid modernization, including medical practices and dietary changes, is causing progressive deterioration of the microbiota, and we hypothesize that this may contribute to various diseases prevalent in industrialized societies,” they wrote in a 2019 opinion piece in Nature Reviews Microbiology.
Hazan believes an awakening is inevitable due to the alarming speed of microbiome death that will spur many doctors to begin rapidly looking for solutions. She’s optimistic those who understand the severity will collaborate to accelerate the speed of science, just as they did in sifting through past studies and learning in emergent situations that ivermectin could prevent death and hospitalization in the early days of the pandemic.
“We have the technology now to look at the microbiome. There’s no more excuses to go blind on this,” she said. “This is the beginning of science that’s telling us to stop what we’re doing, the microbiome is getting killed.”
The Role of Bifidobacterium
How much bifidobacteria you have in your intestine is a wellness barometer of sorts. Flora begin to populate your gut at birth, and a blueprint emerges that determines much of lifelong immunity. As you age, the natural die-off of microbes is inevitable.
Clues about the microbiome’s role in health have existed long before knowledge of molecular mechanisms of key players like bifidobacteria, which were first discovered in 1899 in the feces of breastfed infants. For instance, an immediate connection was made between the gut and antibiotic use when it became available for the masses around World War II.
“Those who took it had indigestion and malnutrition. At that time, there was no possibility to see what bacteria was there. There are many things that destroy them. Antibiotics is one of them,” Dr. Adonis Sfera, a psychiatrist at Patton State Hospital with expertise in epigenetics and neuroscience, told The Epoch Times.
Most medical organizations have since advised against the overuse of antibiotics, recognizing prevalent misuse for infections that resolve on their own. But despite increasingly common warnings that our microbial connection is essential and being jeopardized by common agricultural and medical practices, the messaging hasn’t made an impact. A survey of doctors discovered that more than 70 percent said they would treat asymptomatic patients with antibiotics based solely on a urine test, which goes against long-held medical guidelines.
Excessively killing off microbes creates a deficit of the good ones, yielding more of our internal landscape to more virulent strains of pathogenic bacteria—superbugs—that are resistant to antibiotics and do more damage to the microbiome. The health status of the host can mean the difference between life and death when a pathogen invades, which is why protecting bifidobacteria could play a key role in preserving health.
As specific tests, like genome sequencing of stool samples, become more accessible, we gain broader insight on the interface of the human “bacterial organ.” Hence, we are gaining a more precise perspective on bifidobacteria.
Some pertinent highlights about this bacteria include:
- Its abundance decreases as age and body mass index go up.
- There’s evidence that it plays an important role in the production of adenosine triphosphate, which is the energy source our cells run on and which also plays a role in immunity.
- Bifidobacteria has a role in maintaining a strong barrier in the intestinal epithelium cells, protecting the rest of the body from a bacterial invasion.
- It has anti-inflammatory properties, according to an animal study of inflammatory bowel disease that showed bifidobacteria reduced proinflammatory cytokines and restored intestinal barrier integrity.
- Preterm babies have less bifidobacteria, and breastfed infants have more than formula-fed babies.
- Lower bifidobacteria levels were found in children with asthma at age 4.
- The severity of SARS-CoV-2 infections was associated with a decreased level of bifidobacteria. Many studies point to the gut microbiota composition correlating to levels of cytokines and inflammatory markers in COVID-19.
Could Bifidobacteria Help With COVID-19?
Despite the studies, it’s unclear if the microbiome prior to infection influenced the course of the disease or if the disease itself is changing the makeup of gut microbiota. Still, it opens up the possibility that Bifidobacteria could be used to prevent and even treat patients.
Many studies featuring the probiotic—available as a supplement and also found in fermented foods like yogurt—have vital takeaways that could help doctors and individuals take responsibility for better health.
For instance, in one study, bifidobacteria probiotics decreased the duration of respiratory symptoms caused by the common cold as well as days with fever. Meanwhile, intestinal dysbiosis has been found to lower the effectiveness of vaccines. And patients with COVID-19 have been found to have decreased numbers of bifidobacteria and lactobacilli, bacteria that are part of a genus of aerotolerant anaerobes.
In November 2021, a study published in the International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology reported that 44 patients with moderate to severe COVID-19 infections who were given supplements with bifidobacteria had reduced mortality and a shorter hospital stay.
It’s widely hypothesized that COVID-19’s role in dysbiotic microbiomes could contribute to immune-related health problems over the long term. The disrupted microbial ecology and impaired host immunity can lead to opportunistic fungi including candida overtaking the reassembly of the gut microbiome, according to a research review published in October 2021 in Genomics, Proteomics & Bioinformatics.
Individual colon microbiome analysis could be used as a tool to predict vulnerability to severe infection and reduce the COVID-19 death rate, suggested Hazan and other researchers in an April 2022 BMJ Open Gastroenterology study. The researchers hypothesized that low bifidobacteria is a susceptibility marker for symptomatic COVID-19.
“While it is undeniable that bacteria aid in the antiviral response to certain viruses, they are also, without a doubt, used as a way of entry by them. This makes it complicated to define the role of the microbiota as a friend or foe in this context,” according to a description in a 2017 review in Frontiers in Microbiology.
A review in Microorganisms in December 2022 focused on children and the COVID-19 gut microbiome.
Why It Matters Now
In addition to contributing to more virulent diseases, the death of the microbiome can have consequences for a plethora of diseases and quality of life.
One of the roles bifidobacteria play in the gut is to interact with intestinal epithelial cells to protect the gut barrier, Sfera said. If that mucosal environment is compromised, bacteria and other microbes can get into circulation in the blood, tissues, and brain.
“They are immunologically tolerated in the gut, which means the host immune system does not attack them. When they translocate, it’s a different story,” Sfera said.
Inflammation occurs when proteins and bacteria are displaced in the brain for those that suffer from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, not to mention autism and cancer.
Hazan said everyone—not just doctors—has a part to play in microbiome health. Reducing pesticide use, eating clean food, limiting antibiotics, lowering alcohol consumption, and educating one another about the dangers of losing one’s microbiome are all important.
“Everything we put on the planet affects us,” she said. “Survival of the human species is going to depend on how fast it replenishes the planet and humanity of our microbiome. We all have a job.”
Read More: https://www.theepochtimes.com/health/covid-19-a-wakeup-call-for-our-dying-microbiome_5016437.html
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