The Rise of Chronic Disease

The number of people being diagnosed with a variety of chronic diseases continues to rise and according to a National Health Survey in 2015, one in every two Australians have at least one prominent chronic condition (i.e. arthritis, asthma, back pain, cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes or mental health conditions). Half of all deaths now across the world are as a result of non-communicable diseases, i.e. diabetes and heart disease. What isn’t necessarily recognised by allopathic medicine is that many of these are conditions have arisen as a result of a dysfunctional immune system, when the body acts against its own cells, tissues and/or organs, Autoimmunity.

What is becoming clear is that the state of the immune system is critical to health. The allopathic response to illness is to treat the symptoms. We have a string of specialists like nephrologists, rheumatologists, endocrinologists, neurologists, haematologists gastroenterologists and dermatologists all treating conditions that are connected. They’re connected through the dysfunctional immune system.

What causes this dysfunction? It is becoming clear that our exposure to toxins, our nutrition, pollutants in the air and in the water, coupled with other factors like stress and our sedentary life style are all impacting upon our immune system.

In recent years there is more and more understood about the role of the microbiome, the gut microbiota and the part it plays in maintaining health. The microbiome represents 90% of the cells and more than 99.9% of the genes in our body. It has been shown that changes in microbial populations, species and diversity results in immunological imbalances which leads to inflammation and disease.

Microbial diversity is vital for the maintenance of intestinal homeostasis and for the development of the immune system in the gut mucosa. It is recognised that an important function of the gut microbiota is to educate the immune system as to what is friendly and what is foe.  When the microbial diversity is not there, or key species are not present, the education of the immune system is impaired and this causes one of the hundred or so autoimmune conditions to develop.

The hygiene hypothesis provides an explanation for the rise in autoimmune and allergic conditions. We inherit a large number of our microbes from our parents, principally our mother. The over use of antibiotics, antibacterials in foods, shampoos and soaps destroy our microbial guardians. The microbes that have evolved with us over a millennia form an amazing symbiotic association where they perform a multitude of tasks. Not only do they educate our immune system but they decide how the calories we consume are used, they control our metabolism and whether we are obese, they synthesise vitamins B and K, they produce essential short chain fatty acids and they metabolise bile acids. It is the bacteria, Enterococcus and Streptococcus who produce most of the neurotransmitter serotonin, the feel-good hormone, while Escherichia produce norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine. The list of important functions performed by the gut microbes is long.  Is it any wonder chronic illness results when populations of bacteria are reduced, unbalanced or incomplete, when dysbiosis occurs?

What fascinates me is the likelihood that some species of microbes may be keystone species. They may be few in number but may be absolutely vital to the balance and health of the whole gut microbiome. Just like the re-introduction of the wolves to Yellowstone National Park was able to affect the flow and health of the rivers or that Wildebeest numbers have an effect on giraffe populations in the Serengeti, it is hypothesised that there are certain species of gut microbes that have a disproportionate influence on the structure and health of the gut microbiome even though they are small in number. If we inadvertently eradicated those keystone species through over use of antibiotics in childhood, what effect would it have on our health as adults?

There is so much to understand and the realisation that our microbiome is as unique to us as our fingerprint has helped us understand why we all respond so differently to different diets, different medications and lifestyles. We are all unique.

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