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  • Writer's pictureBernard Beitman, MD

Not a Mere Coincidence: Gut Microbes and Chronic Illness

Coincidences alert us to look for potential causal relationships.

Foods rich in fibers: fruits, vegetables, and grains. (Source: National Cancer Institute)

The microbes in our guts are disappearing. Those one-celled creatures, mostly bacteria, train our immune system, guide our tissue maturation, prevent pathogenic invasions, and may be influencing our thought processes. The beneficial bacteria digest fiber to produce metabolites that promote health. Without fiber to digest, the beneficial bacteria begin to disappear. Diets containing very little fiber may be the culprit. Each week in the late 1950s and early '60s, Americans gobbled up 1 ½ pounds of Wonder Bread, the presliced white bread that contained 1 gram of fiber per slice. Convenience foods like Tang, Pop-Tarts, Velveeta, frozen dinners, and Jell-O also reduced fiber intake. The effects on our gut microbes are passed from mother to child. Kids pick up microbes in the birth canal, from close contact such as breastfeeding, immediate family members, pets, and household surfaces. Yes, germs can be good for you! Mice studies show conclusively that low-fiber diets deplete the complex microbial ecosystems of the intestines—an apparently irreversible loss. Over the past 50 years, we have seen an increase in cesarean sections which prevent bacterial exchange in the birth canal, antibiotics that kill gut bacteria, as well as low-fiber diets. During this same time frame, there has been an increase in chronic diseases like allergies, asthma, obesity, type-2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease and other chronic diseases. Stanford researchers suggest this correlation is not a mere coincidence. The hypothesis that loss of the ecosystem in our intestines is contributing to the increase in certain chronic diseases is now being tested.

This is what coincidences do — they alert us to possible causes. To see the connection requires being alert to underlying explanations. Being alert to coincidences requires vigilance as well as discrimination. Some coincidences are mere coincidences. Others indicate underlying causes. Intuition and hypothesis testing help separate the "mere" from the potentially causal ones. Meanwhile, consume more fiber. The popularity of smoothies, including green smoothies, suggests that many people are recognizing the health benefits of fiber. If you let your smoothie sit for a while, you will notice a separation of liquid from something thick floating on the top. The floating stuff is your fiber. Drink in good health.

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