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Microbes call the shots in body’s immune system

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – Consider this fact: we share our body with over 100 trillion microbes that go by the name of “flora.” These are the microbes that live in the human gut, and they outnumber the other cells in our body 10 to 1.

“These microbes in our body can help protect us from disease-causing bacteria, help break down fiber and carbohydrates to give us energy, make vitamin K and some B vitamins, and influence our health in a variety of ways,” says Dr. Pam Duitsman.

Dr. Pam Duitsman

Dr. Pam Duitsman

Duitsman explains that each of us has a unique composition of micro-flora (referred to as our “microbiome”). Our microbiome is affected by many things, but most notably what kinds of foods we eat. Our age, genes, and where we live can also have an influence.

“This area of research has recently exploded and is showing that our individual microbiome may influence our health as strongly as the genes we inherited from our parents,” says Duitsman, a nutrition and health education specialist with University of Missouri Extension.

The significance is that we can’t do much about the genes we inherit, but we may be able to affect our microbiome to promote health and prevent disease.

“In fact, our indigenous composition of micro-flora needs our help surviving. The way we’re eating and living is killing them off,” said Duitsman.

Microbes in our gut play a critical role in training and supporting our immune system, protecting us from disease, and potentially preventing allergies. New evidence suggests that it all starts at the beginning.

Studies of babies have shown that protective factors are gained during the birth process. They are also conferred through factors in breast milk that influence the gut flora of the infant and set up the immune system to protect from chronic illnesses now, and later in life.

Duitsman says gut bacteria also performs a role in manufacturing neurotransmitters and important signaling compounds that regulate our appetite, the sensation of feeling full (satiety) and digestion, controlling our metabolism; how we store fat and balance blood glucose; controlling stress levels and even temperament.

“It appears that the wrong mixture of gut flora can set the stage for obesity and diabetes. Almost monthly, a new study suggests a link between our gut flora and diseases that range from obesity to autism,” said Duitsman.

“Our individual micro-flora can be easily and quickly altered,” said Duitsman.

Microbiologists sound the alarm that we may be unwittingly destroying our micro-flora through consumption of processed food, antibiotics in our foods, sterile birth environments, and our “western way of life.”

“Researchers are seeing that each generation is passing on fewer beneficial microbes, and some may be headed for extinction,” said Duitsman.

Hold it down please. We're trying to learn something here.

“Hold it down please. We’re trying to get a head count.”

If you’re looking for ways to boost your intestinal health, comprehensive recommendations are scarce. Researchers are looking for ways to help adults boost their intestinal health, but aren’t ready to advise on specific food intake. They do know that the type and amount of proteins, fats, and indigestible fibers affect the make-up of our gut micro-flora.

“Some studies have shown that diets high in meat and cheeses – with few carbohydrates – can quickly alter our gut microbes toward the type that are linked to inflammation and intestinal diseases,” said Duitsman.

To improve the microbes in their gut, people should ideally eat a diverse variety of whole (non-processed) foods; consume non-digestible carbohydrates that are found in whole grains, fruits and vegetables; and avoid high fat and highly processed foods.

For example, probiotics contain helpful, viable bacteria that can assist our bodies in balancing our levels of beneficial microbes. Probiotics are available in a few foods. For healthy people, a good place to start is with real food.

“Many types of yogurt and other cultured milk foods contain these beneficial organisms. Make sure to read the label to ensure it says ‘live cultures,'” said Duitsman.

Probiotics are also used commonly in a supplement form — to boost friendly bacteria in the gut.

A variety of probiotics organisms available in supplemental products have been tested in clinical trials and other studies for a range of conditions including irritable bowel syndrome; diverticular disease; diarrhea caused by antibiotics, viruses, or chemotherapy; colds and flu; hypertension; anxiety; periodontitis; allergies; and other conditions.

“There are many types of probiotic products that have been studied, with widely varied results. Talk to your doctor if you think this might be an option for you,” said Duitsman.

For more information on nutrition contact one of the following nutrition specialists: Dr. Lydia Kaume in Barton County, (417) 682-3579; or Dr. Pam Duitsman, in Greene County, (417) 881-8909. Information is also available online

George Freeman is a veteran journalist and photographer. An award-winning writer, editor and columnist in Springfield, Mo., with more than 50 years experience. His preference is for positive and uplifting stories about people, places, traditions and trends that make the Ozarks one of the most livable regions anywhere. A member of the Garden Writers Association of America, he is a past-president of the Society of Professional Journalists of Southwest Missouri, the Kansas and Ohio AP societies; a board member of Friends of the Garden and a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield. In 1976, he traveled to India as a member of a Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange Team.

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