Understanding the microbiome is the ‘next frontier in medicine’

Most of the trillions of bacteria and other organisms that live in and on our bodies — our microbiome — are in our intestinal tract, “where they are capable of influencing virtually every aspect of our health,” writes Rene Ebersole in FERN’s latest story, published with Cooking Light.

Though we are really in the infancy of understanding how the microbiome works, Rob Knight, “a professor and the principal investigator for the Knight Lab at the University of California, San Diego, says the gut microbiome represents the next great frontier in life-saving medicine: ‘A better understanding of these links could help us develop fundamentally new therapies for many of the chronic diseases that are currently intractable and cost society billions of dollars a year.’ ”

What we do know is that it takes more than a healthy, fiber-rich diet to sustain a diverse microbiome. It’s also important to “live a lifestyle … that nurtures a diverse community of microbes — which is a far more comprehensive approach than popping a probiotic supplement,” Ebersole writes.

Jeff Leach, director of the Human Food Project, an effort to understand the coevolution of humans and the trillions of microbes that live in and on our bodies, contrasts the lifestyle in the West with that of the Hadza, hunter-gatherers in Tanzania who have the most diverse microbiome in the world and who also don’t suffer from obesity, diabetes, or many other chronic diseases common among Westerners. “Urbanites live and work in sterile houses and offices,” writes Ebersole, “while the Hadza live in what by Western standards is a dirty environment, sleeping on the ground, drinking unfiltered water from sources that can be contaminated by animal waste, hunting meat, cooking over a fire, all the while bearing children naturally and breastfeeding toddlers. ‘There’s a microbial superhighway moving through the Hadza gut,’ Leach says. ‘Why do we have half the diversity of these hunter-gatherers? It’s not because we eat Häagen-Dazs, McDonald’s, or too much olive oil; it’s because of our environment.’ ”