There has been increasing focus in recent years on the larger health problems facing humans in all stages of life—cases of food allergies among children have increased 50 percent in the last 20 years, and cancer diagnoses among adults are expected to surge 57 percent in the next 20 years.
But Dr. Rodney Dietert, a professor at Cornell University, thinks the best way to face these big problems is by thinking small. His specialty is immunotoxicology, the study of hazards to the human immune system—among these dangers are chemicals, drugs and environmental factors.
Dr. Dietert specifically focuses on the microbiome, which is the collection of microbes that lives on the human body in areas like the skin, mouth and airways.
“The status of the microbiome affects when a drug is administered or a surgical procedure is performed,” he told the Observer. “We really see the external environment through the microbiome.”
These tiny organisms are the focus of Dr. Dietert’s new book The Human Superorganism: How the Microbiome Is Revolutionizing the Pursuit of a Healthy Life, which will be released July 12. He believes doctors should collect patients’ microbiome profiles just as they do blood samples, because 99 percent of genes are microbial and ignoring them has had an adverse effect on human health.
“We are becoming a race of disabled people,” Dr. Dietert writes in the introduction of his book.
“The non-communicable diseases are the majority killer,” he elaborated. “The symptoms are managed, but the diseases aren’t cured. Individuals carry them for the bulk of their lives.”
As an example, Dr. Dietert pointed to the link between obesity and type 2 diabetes.
“These problems weren’t here two or three generations ago,” he said. “Our food has changed and our microbiome has changed.”
Among the biggest changes is the increased availability of fast food and processed food, which are toxic for the microbiome.
“It’s important to eat for the whole human,” Dr. Dietert said.
It’s even more important when there are two whole humans involved—a natural birth is healthier for the microbiome than a Caesarean section, because according to Dr. Dietert this leads to a better outcome for the child.
“C-sections break the chain between the mother’s microbiome and the baby’s,” he said. “That microbiome could be donated to the child.”
This is one of many reasons why it’s crucial for physicians to understand the microbiome and see where changes need to be made. Dr. Dietert said the patient’s entire profile can show how diseases are interconnected, and perhaps how they can all be treated at one time instead of in a piecemeal fashion.
“We’re missing the opportunity for a lasting, comprehensive treatment if we don’t understand the patient’s microbiome profile and adjust that to function in a more balanced way in concert,” he said. “Unless the microbiome is brought into balance the other things are a temporary patch.”
Outside of a doctor’s office, patients can replenish their microbiome by eating fermented foods like yogurt, and by consuming probiotics.
“You can grow the garden of microbes that you want to enrich and decrease the ones you don’t want,” Dr. Dietert said. “It’s not just any old change, but very specific changes that will move individuals toward a healthier profile and will dampen down inappropriate elements.”
While acknowledging that the microbiome is a somewhat foreign concept, Dr. Dietert said its importance to overall health made it a crucial medical tool.
“To do nothing is increasingly unacceptable,” he said.