Some of Your Best Friends are “Germs”

Posted on Jun 29, 2013 | 0 comments

Michael Pollan has a new article out on the microbiota that inhabit our bodies. I wish I had seen this before I completed my book – I could have expanded on several themes in a couple of chapters. It’s a long but fascinating discussion of the nascent study of the 90% of cells in our body that aren’t actually “our body”. They are cells of the organisms that live in and on “our body.” We are just beginning to understand why farm kids tend to be healthier than city kids. The link between breast milk and proper gut colonization. The link between the flora in a “Western gut” and diabetes. The list goes on. Here’s the link:

And here’s one small excerpt:

The study of babies and their specialized diet has yielded key insights into how the colonization of the gut unfolds and why it matters so much to our health. One of the earliest clues to the complexity of the microbiome came from an unexpected corner: the effort to solve a mystery about milk. For years, nutrition scientists were confounded by the presence in human breast milk of certain complex carbohydrates, called oligosaccharides, which the human infant lacks the enzymes necessary to digest. Evolutionary theory argues that every component of mother’s milk should have some value to the developing baby or natural selection would have long ago discarded it as a waste of the mother’s precious resources.

It turns out the oligosaccharides are there to nourish not the baby but one particular gut bacterium called Bifidobacterium infantis, which is uniquely well-suited to break down and make use of the specific oligosaccharides present in mother’s milk. When all goes well, the bifidobacteria proliferate and dominate, helping to keep the infant healthy by crowding out less savory microbial characters before they can become established and, perhaps most important, by nurturing the integrity of the epithelium — the lining of the intestines, which plays a critical role in protecting us from infection and inflammation.

“Mother’s milk, being the only mammalian food shaped by natural selection, is the Rosetta stone for all food,” says Bruce German, a food scientist at the University of California, Davis, who researches milk. “And what it’s telling us is that when natural selection creates a food, it is concerned not just with feeding the child but the child’s gut bugs too.”

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