Review of Missing Microbes by Dr. Martin Blaser
This review starts with a disclaimer: A warning, if you will. Not suitable for those with weak stomachs and active imaginations. Trigger warning for germaphobes and non-germaphobes alike: this is about to get gross.
In his book, Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics is Fueling Our Modern Plagues, Dr. Martin J. Blaser (head of NYU’s Microbiome Program) takes great pains to emphasize the important role microbes play in our lives, and how the loss of these microbes spells danger for humans. Spoiler alert: We have bacteria all over our bodies. And I do mean all over our bodies. Inside, outside, on various parts of the skin, each human body has a completely unique microbial ecosystem. And these bacteria are either dying off or becoming resistant to antibiotics… which means only one thing.
(Antibiotic) Winter is coming.
Let’s start from the beginning. Antibiotics have been in wide circulation since the mid-1940s, or almost as long as the atomic bomb; we have just failed to realize how closely paralleled two of the tools that helped us win World War II are. Just like the atomic bomb, antibiotics, that were used to treat every condition under the sun, did so “scorched-earth style” – any and all bacteria were eliminated. Well, that’s not entirely true. Most were eliminated. Some bacteria hadn’t been eliminated though, and therefore through rapid evolution, became resistant to those antibiotics. Ever wonder what the claim ’kills 99.99% germs’ that appears on packaging and TV products means? What it really means is that there is 0.01% of the bacteria that made it, and that 0.01% is now antibiotic resistant.
This kind of antibiotic resistance, sped along through eating food that’s been heavily treated with antibiotics and the increasing frequency with which doctors prescribe antibiotics for viral or very mild conditions, is the bleak palette of colors with which Blaser paints an even bleaker picture. We are basically doomed, and we kind of don’t know what to do about it. Major diseases that we suffer from in the ‘developed world’ in 2015: heartburn, many types of cancer, asthma, allergies, obesity, and even possibly autism can be traced back to our immune system’s failure. In fact, these diseases are the modern plagues that Blaser spends a good portion of the book discussing.
The case Blaser makes is simple: We succeeded too well in purifying our world. It is too clean. Children don’t develop the kind of strong immune systems they used to, and as a result are much more vulnerable to these modern plagues. We are killing off good bacteria that helps the immune system, but also some bacteria that has good and bad sides. Scientists are now working to map out the human microbiome, but what the science seems to already reveal is that a strong immune system requires a diverse and densely populated gut filled with a range of bacteria.
Unfortunately for us, not only have we made our outside world too clean, but our inside world is a little too clean as well. Every human acquires his or her bacteria within hours of birth; the passage of the infant through the birth canal kick-starts this process. The microbiome; the tiny personal ecosystem of billions upon billions of bacteria is essential in helping the human body function, but its development is hindered by bad medical habits as well as too much hygiene, in a sense. Babies born via cesarean sections are not passing through the birth canal, and as such are not able to benefit from the trip through a friendly bacteria-rich paradise. Doctors are then overprescribing antibiotics to children, which further stunts the growth of the child’s microbiome. I was shocked to learn that up to 80% of the antibiotics sold in the US are given to livestock, because back in the 1940s pharmaceutical companies realized that if they gave long term subtherapeutic levels of antibiotics to the animals, they put on weight, up to 15% more weight. (More meat = more $) Shocking truths such as these are hurled one after another at the unsuspecting reader: this lack of exposure to good bacteria leads to problems in metabolism and later in life, may lead to obesity. Not only obesity, but as mentioned above, asthma, food allergies such as celiac disease, and even type I diabetes.
Blaser lays all of this information out at a rapid pace. Missing Microbes is a relatively easy read, and the ‘Notes’ section in the back is hugely helpful in providing detailed definitions and explanations. His writing is conversational, clean, concise, and often seems to be accidentally poetic. Blaser conveys the urgency of the situation very well, and impresses upon us exactly where and how it all went wrong.
The solution for this microbial crisis remains unclear. Blaser emphasizes again and again how important it is for major pharmaceutical companies to get their acts together. Instead of concentrating their efforts on producing antibiotics for farmers to fatten animals with, he suggests that they should really be focusing on developing drugs that treat the conditions we need them to, while still helping to preserve our microbial ecosystems. Finally, the overcorrection that happened in the middle of the century needs to be corrected again, or according to Blaser, all that will be left of mankind is a bunch of superbugs that are resistant to all drugs. (Ewwwwwww.)
Winter is coming, and we better start preparing for it. OR ELSE.
Overly hygienic practices (yes, that’s really a thing), doctors’ overprescription of antibiotics, and the overall perception of antibiotics as a cure-all have led to less healthy immune systems and more antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This is a bad thing because good bacteria literally make our world go ‘round, and we cannot function without them. So, um, you should probably initiate damage control protocol (probiotics) ASAP.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of LoveBug Nutrition.