It’s difficult to overstate how our growing understanding of the trillions of microbes that live on and in the human body is radically changing the way we think about health and the prevention and treatment of a myriad of diseases. Not since Darwin unleashed onto the world the concept of Natural Selection, have humans been forced to rethink our place in the natural world and indeed the very definition of Self. Since the microbial cells we carry out number our own cells 10 to 1, we are more microbe than mammal and thus reliant upon this dynamic and diverse ecosystem within for proper functioning.
Yet, despite the microbial connection in human health and well-being, not a single scientist with a background in human-microbe interactions is among the 15 panel experts recently selected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) to update the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans for 2015 with the latest scientific and medical data. That means, as with the seven previous iterations of the Dietary Guidelines (revisions take place every five years), we will get another set of recommendations that only focus on 10% of the human body, ignoring the other (microbial) 90%. Not to take anything away from the 15 distinguished researchers who have “expertise in dietary intake, human metabolism, behavioral change, and health,” but the complete absence of what should be a handful of microbiologists and microbial ecologists on the expert panel guarantees the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans will be outdated even before they arrive.
Plummeting costs in DNA-sequencing and advances in analytics (bioinformatics) in the last 5 years has ignited a (micro) revolution in medicine and health, that literally advances by the month as waves of new research is published. While scientists throughout the world conducting this research are fond of saying these are early days – not wanting to over promise the implications of the science – the connection between our gut microbes and metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and obesity, as well as inflammatory bowel diseases, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, some cancers, and a growing list of other ailments of the modern world is compelling.
At the core of human-microbe research is the notion that diet and lifestyle can have a dramatic impact on the composition and functional characteristics of your gut microbes. In other words, the opportunity to nudge your gut microbiota in a more healthy or optimal direction with diet and lifestyle choices that may lead to a more, lean or less inflamed you, is within our grasp (but yes, these are early days). This should be of great interest to the USDA and HHS as they seek strategies to improve the health of the nation.
Perhaps more importantly, human-microbe research teaches us that our human DNA is not our destiny, and that achieving the maximum number of healthy years is grounded more in an enhanced understanding of human-microbial ecology rather than the tired notion that energy balance sits at the root of what ails us.
If a microbial-centric and ecological view of human health were embedded or at least considered by the USDA and HHS, this would dramatically change the tone of the dietary guidelines and make them more relevant in our daily lives. For example, the guidelines are currently designed for persons more than two years of age. This is a striking cut off age when you consider that birthing method, breast feeding, early childhood nutrition in general, and early immune system education are critical to a healthy adult and firmly rooted in human-microbe ecology. It’s short sighted and archaic not to appreciate how much of the die is cast in the first two years of life (and in utero for that matter). Dietary guidelines that ignore this critical symbiotic period with our microbes – as they currently do – miss the very essence of what humans really are, super organisms of microbial and mammalian cells (and genes).
A handful of microbial researchers on the expert panel for the upcoming 2015 Dietary Guidelines would likely result in more attention to how simple, and often-mundane daily choices in how we live can dramatically impact the health of our gut microbiota and thus us. Perhaps opening a few windows in your home, or getting a dog, simple gardening, eating the more fibrous parts of our plant foods, swimming in microbial-rich ponds and lakes, or even thinking twice about taking yet another antibiotic for a run-of-the-mill sniffle – all of which may have profound effects (positive and negative) on the health of your gut microbes – would be considered as important or more so than your daily intake antioxidants or percentages of this nutrient over that nutrient or the eat less exercise more mantra.
The upcoming 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans have an opportunity to matter. However, if the guidelines continue to ignore the basic biological fact that we are super-organisms, and that discordance with the microbial world may sit at the center of a lot that ails us, then the 2015 guidelines will provide us with very little. The expert panel has almost a year and half to deliberate before providing an advisory report to the secretaries of the USDA and HHS. To produce a report that is consistent with the current state of the science – and one that might have a chance of truly making a difference – we might need to break a few plates, starting with MyPlate. BioPlate anyone?