Summary of Missing Microbes by Martin Blaser

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of Missing Microbes by Martin Blaser

Microbes have been on the planet since the beginning. They have shaped the world as we know it and along the way have also caused some problems. These problematic bacteria caused the death of thousands of humans before the discovery of antibiotics. In fact, antibiotics proved to be one of the greatest discoveries of our time. They help us recover from infections both mild and severe. However, antibiotics can also cause harm. 

Just like any medication, too much is never a good thing and with antibiotics, they can get rid of your body’s natural bacteria putting you in a worse place than before. Your body has its own microbiome and messing with this natural balance is never a good thing.

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • The importance of microbes
  • The implications of missing microbes
  • Antibiotics – the blessing and curse of our time
  • What you can do to reduce your need for antibiotics

Key lesson one: The importance of microbes

To understand the importance of microbes, you must first appreciate that they were here long before our human ancestors came into being. In fact, in the 3.7 billion years of evolution, microbes were the only living organisms for about 3 billion of those years. They shaped the biosphere with their chemical reactions and made it habitable for other living organisms. Bacteria were essentially the builders who put our planet together bit by bit which enabled our evolution. 

Even now, bacteria are all around us. They have adapted to some of the planet’s most harsh environments and are essentially immeasurable. If we were to somehow measure all the bacteria on the planet, it would not only outnumber every other living organism but also outweigh them. Their abundance is a testament to their importance. Without them we would not be able to survive, however, if we stopped being, they would not be affected. But as much as they are important for our survival, they are also quite capable of causing disease and destruction.

Key lesson two: The implications of missing microbes

Have you ever stopped to consider why illnesses such as diabetes, asthma and cancer are on the rise? With everything that modern medicine has achieved, why do these illnesses continue to rise? Indeed, microbes might hold the answer. Everyone has their own unique microbiome and this community of microbes is what keeps us healthy and our bodies functioning optimally. 

We get our microbiome from the time we are born. As a baby passes through the birth canal, it gets introduced to a variety of microbes along the way. These microbes stick to the baby’s skin and enter their body through the nose and mouth. These organisms, once established, become your microbiome which will remain with you for as long as you are alive. An obvious implication of Caesarean sections is that babies miss out on exposure to microbes in the birth canal. This, together with the use of sanitisers and the overuse of antibiotics can alter your microbiome and have serious consequences. If your microbiome contains a diverse group of microbes, you will be more protected. If key species are missing, the results can be disastrous. 

For us to understand how missing microbes can affect our health, it’s best to consider an outside example of a natural ecosystem. Take Yellowstone National Park, for example. Wolves were removed from the park approximately 70 years ago and as a result of their absence, the elk population increased dramatically. The elk fed on the willows found on riverbanks which led not only to a decrease in beavers and songbirds who depend on willows as a natural habitat but also to the riverbanks being eroded. Also, without the wolves, there were fewer elk carcasses available to provide food for other creatures that fed on carrion. The more the elk numbers increased, the more the diverse population of the park decreased. All this occurred because of the removal of wolves. The same could happen in our bodies as the result of removing crucial microbes from our microbiome.

Key lesson three: Antibiotics – the blessing and curse of our time

Early on in human existence, a bacterial epidemic posed much less threat than it does now. Why? Well, when humans lived as hunter-gatherers, they lived n small communities and even though disease still posed a problem, the chances of it reaching the entire species were pretty slim. In fact, if anyone got sick, you could bank on one of three outcomes. Everyone in that community got sick and died, or some died and others developed immunity or nothing happened at all. The pathogen was in a closed system, it could not move on to another community.

A true pandemic only occurs in a highly populated place. Early cities, therefore, were the ideal environments for pathogens to thrive. These cities also attracted rats and other pests which served as hosts for parasites and bacteria. As cities expanded, it became much easier for pathogens to spread. The Black Death, cholera and smallpox ravaged cities and took countless lives. It was not until 1928 that Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. His discovery laid the foundation for modern antibiotics and saved many lives during the process.

As much as antibiotics have been a blessing in modern medicine, today we face a serious repercussion. Antibiotics are everywhere and because of this, they have also become a curse. For example, in the United States, the majority of antibiotics produced are for use on farm animals. This has happened for two reasons. Firstly, farm animals do not often live in the best conditions. This environment makes it easy for pathogens to spread and therefore antibiotics are often needed to keep animals healthy. Secondly, antibiotics tend to promote growth in animals. This means that farmers often overuse antibiotics in order to get the animals bigger to maximize food production. However, giving farm animals large amounts of antibiotics also means that antibiotic residues make their way into our food and water. In addition, farm animals develop antibiotic-resistant microbes.

The next problem comes from our use of antibiotics. As much as they kill the dangerous bacteria present in an infection, they also kill the bacteria present in your gut. For example, Peggy Lillis a healthy woman in her 60s needed antibiotics after a minor dental procedure. Lillis got severely ill and died almost two months later. Shortly before her death, doctors diagnosed Lillis with a Clostridium difficile infection. This bacteria is commonly found in the gut but is kept at low levels by other competing bacteria. However, when Lillis had the antibiotics after the dental procedure, all the competing bacteria in her gut were eliminated leaving Clostridium difficile to multiply unhindered. In large numbers, this bacteria produces toxins that destroy the walls of the colon allowing faecal matter to enter the bloodstream. This is what caused Lillis to die.

Even a normal course of antibiotics can make you more susceptible to infections. The most known and widespread case happened in 1985 when there was a Salmonella outbreak in Chicago. The source of the outbreak was traced and found to be a specific brand of milk. When they looked at the people who purchased the milk, those who had been on a course of antibiotics up to a month prior to drinking the milk, were five times more likely to get ill than others. 

So antibiotics can help and hurt you. It is best to be aware of how antibiotics will affect you so that you will be able to protect yourself if need be.

Key lesson four: What you can do to reduce your need for antibiotics

The most harmful thing you could do when it comes to antibiotics is to take them more than you need to. The overuse of antibiotics is not good for your health. You should aim to only take antibiotics when absolutely necessary. Normally, we just listen to our physicians and if they prescribe an antibiotic we do not question if it is really necessary. However, it is worth having a conversation with your physician and letting them know that you would prefer to only use antibiotics when it is absolutely necessary. This is especially important for children as well. In some countries, like France, there have been efforts made to reduce antibiotic use, specifically in children because they understand the potential harm. 

Another method to boost your microbiome is to take prebiotics. Prebiotics encourage the growth and activity of microbes in your gut. There have been many positive reports from people who have taken prebiotics although their true effectiveness has not yet been proven. 

Whether you choose to reduce your antibiotic use or increase the microbes in your gut, they are both great options for maintaining a healthy microbiome. Even though you can’t see them, keeping them healthy will also keep you in good health. 

The key takeaway from Missing Microbes is:

Microbes have shaped our environments and our very bodies since the beginning of mankind. They make it possible for our bodies to function optimally and control the nutrient and carbon cycles necessary for the survival of all living organisms. As much as bacteria can cause disease, this only became a real problem when people formed cities and lived in densely populated areas. The discovery of antibiotics changed modern medicine forever and enabled us to survive many possible epidemics. However, the use of antibiotics came with a price. Its overuse in the farming sector causes secondary problems for humans who are exposed to the residues of antibiotics in food sources and antibiotic-resistance bacterial infections in animals. With humans, antibiotic use can unintentionally kill non-harmful bacteria and leave you susceptible to other infections. It is thus important to only use antibiotics when necessary. 

How can I implement the lessons learned in Missing Microbes:

Besides being careful about antibiotic use, also try to lay off the sanitisers. Some situations call for sterile hands, like in hospitals or when dealing with people with low immunity, however, continuous use of sanitisers especially in children will decrease their natural microbiome. This will decrease their immunity and increase their chances of developing illnesses. So go on, let the kids play in the dirt for a little. It will be good for them!

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