We’ve also been led to believe that they can make us sick. But in fact, microbiologists are now learning that some bacteria can actually make us healthier. There’s some incredible research happening in this area, and Kim Parlee spoke to one of Canada’s leading microbiologists, Brett Finlay of University of British Columbia—about microbes at the Personal Performance Summit in Toronto, sponsored by TD Wealth.
It feels as though we are undergoing a bacteria renaissance-- you know, what was bad is good now. Tell me just a bit about why you wrote your book. Is it really to educate the masses on what's going-- why we need our bacteria?
Yeah. So I mean, we have to think historically. About 125 years ago Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur showed that microbes cause disease. And that was a big leap forward. We realized this is what causes tuberculosis and syphilis and all these other horrible diseases. Smallpox. So then Pasteur also showed if you killed microbes through pasteurization, you didn't get disease.
So society went on this major campaign of hygiene for the last 125 years. They brought in antibodies, clean up the food, bring in sanitation, kill all microbes. And we've done a really good job in that. And we look at pretty much any infectious disease, it goes like this.
Then you look at the other stuff. Well, what do we see in this world? We see obesity, asthma, diabetes, allergies, autism, IBD. Every one of those diseases is going like this. How come? And so this is where the microbes come into play.
What we now realize in our quest to get rid of all these bad microbes, we also killed a lot of the good ones that we normally evolve with. And now in the last 10 years or so, we realize that those microbes that we live with, they're part of us. They make us function normally. They help the brain develop, the gut develop, the immune system develop. And we're getting rid of those things. And so every generation gets cleaner and cleaner, and we don't have the microbes our great-great grandparents had, for example.
Where are we in this-- bringing this out to the masses, I'll say. Because I've been hearing about the biome for a few years now. And when you say those things, it's startling to hear that all these diseases are caused by lack, it sounds as though, of bacteria and microbes.
Well, it's related. Yeah.
Or related to. But that's not something that seems to be something that's to the masses yet. Like when I go to my doctor or someone goes, their doctor's telling them diabetes is still a nutritional thing. It's not a microbial thing.
And ironically, I think it's more in the public than it is in the medical world. Because the clinical trials are not quite there yet. I mean, most people have heard of fecal transfers. And there's this disease caused by Clostridium difficile. It's a very nasty disease. You get it by taking antibiotics. And so antibiotics don't treat it. So if you have a fecal transfer, you may cure it.
And let's just pause here. Because lots of people haven't heard of fecal transfer. What is it?
It's gross. It's just like it sounds. You take feces from a normal person and either you give an enema or you do a tube down the-- that. And you basically put normal feces from one person into another person. And you basically transfer all the microbes from one gut into another. And that cures the disease.
And that was a turning moment in the field, when we realized that we could actually change microbes, basically cure a life-threatening disease. And that's when the lights went on, that if we could put the right microbes in the right context, we could actually start to think about many of these diseases. Because you can change the microbes. You can't change your genes, but you can change your microbes.
But how common is that? Because again, I've heard of it. But, I mean, it's something-- I think the da-- not the danger, that's the wrong word-- but the frustration, I think, is a lot of people hear these conversations and go, oh, why can't I do that?
Why can't I. Yeah.
Why can't I walk into my doctor and say--
And that's where we hit the wall of still waiting for the clinical trials. I mean, there's many fecal transfer trials underway for inflammatory bowel disease, for autism, for obesity. But the data's still coming in. So you hear these spectacular things, like you can take feces from a fat mouse and put it in a thin mouse, it will get fat. You can do it the other way around. You can take fat people feces, put it in the thin mice. They get fat. And vice versa.
So when you hear that, say, well, I'll just go get a fecal transfer from a thin person and lose weight, right? How hard can it be? But then they actually had to put the brakes on that. Because you don't know what else you're transferring. You're worried that this is basically a body fluid transfer.
So what are the things we can do? Because when you walk in a room, I'm assuming you don't use hand sanitizer. That's probably not something you reach for.
Not unless it's a cancer ward or an old folks home kind of thing. There are places for hygiene, yeah.
Right. But what do we do day to day? What are some things that either we can be aware of, or our children, or if we're thinking of having kids? What do we need to do?
Right. Well, I wrote this book called Let Them Eat Dirt. And it was really designed for the average parent that's asking, what can I do that's good for my kid? And there's actually-- the book's full of a whole bunch of try this, you can do these types of things, based on the science. The science is there.
And there's many common things you could do. And really, it's common sense. You need to balance the hygiene versus the microbial exposure. So if you walk into a room and everyone's coughing and hacking and it's flu season, wash your hands. Of course. That's hygiene, right?
But if your kid's at home playing on the floor, and they're licking the floor, fine. If it's the floor of the subway, think twice about it, right? So you've got to be logical here. So I think we're paranoid about exposing our kids to microbes because of this hygiene worry. And we have to get over that. And so we've got to ease up a bit.
I mean, I see people in playgrounds all the time. The kid goes down the slide, comes over, gets their hands washed. Then they go on the swing, get their hands sanitized again. You don't need that. The kids need this exposure to these microbes.
So a lot of it's common sense. A lot of it's foods. You can change your microbes really quickly with diet. So your mother always said, eat your vegetables, they're good for you. Wrong. Eat your vegetables because they're good for the microbes that are good for you so. Fruits, nuts, legumes, those kind of things, those all encourage microbial growth.
If you eat white sugar, white flour type things, that's already broken down. That doesn't even reach the microbes deep down in your gut. You absorb it before. So ironically, you're starving your microbes even though you're eating this food. So you want to eat the stuff that's harder to digest. Because that's then feeding the microbes deeper down.
You're speaking to a group of people today about personal performance. What is the one or two things you want them to really get from this conversation?
Well, I want them to get the concept that not all microbes are bad. I mean, people only hear about these bad infectious agents. And the realization that we have 100 trillion microbes living in and on us-- like, there's more microbes in and on you than there are human cells. You're more microbial than human, in a sense. There's 15 times more microbial DNA on you than Homo sapiens DNA.
And most people think, whoa, that's weird. I'm a human, right? Well, no, you're not. You're what we call a holobiont. You're you and all your microbes.
You're a carrier. You carry things.
Well, you're this multi-organism, really. So that's the other thing.
And the other thing I'm getting across is how this is an area that's coming fast. How fast is it going to affect medicine? Cancer chemotherapies, for example. I was just in a meeting yesterday that showed spectacular results in immune checkpoint inhibitors. They work or not depending on what microbes you have. You don't have these microbes, they're not going to work.
So realizing these things play a role in us and just being aware of it and addressing it and thinking about it in your day-to-day actions, that's kind of message I'm trying to get across.
More microbial than human. Something to think about next time you look in the mirror.
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