Colon cancer and your gut

Can fibre reduce your chances of contracting colon cancer?

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I have been a fan of Dr Michael Greger for some considerable time. He excels at explaining important and often complex nutrition research in a way that most people can understand. Michael recently wrote about the benefits of fibre to health, its crucial role in feeding the ‘good’ gut bacteria. Put simply out gut bacteria converts fibre into short-chain fatty acids (SCFA). SCFAs deliver a range of  benefits and are thought to reduce the chances of contracting colon cancer.

It’s not simply that SCFA promote gut health generally, fibre helps to maintain gut flora. A failure to eat enough fibre can lead to the starvation and decline of healthy bacteria. This typically allows for an imbalance (dysbiosis), where potentially harmful bacteria begin to dominate, perhaps leading to a range of inflammatory diseases and even colon cancer. Further links even suggest a connection to cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.

A relative small amounts of fibre is needed to sustain healthy gut bacteria, in many cases just a handful of chickpeas every day. And yet there is evidence that many people in the USA and UK are failing to include sufficient fibre into their daily diet.

Probiotics, antibiotics and resistance

The overuse of antibiotics is a major health concern. Probiotics may support the lower consumption of antibiotics by boosting overall health in humans and animals.

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I am in the process of writing a basic guide to probiotics, but a general description is,

‘microorganisms contained in some food and supplements that have proven and assumed benefits to human and animal health’.

A key point at the outset is that it is hard to prove causality in such matters. Demonstrating correlation (people that have particular gut bacteria tend to have or not have a particular illness) is much simpler. The evidence linking probiotics and health is both causal and correlational. The point of probiotics is to change (improve) the profile of gut flora so that it has more positive and less negative microorganisms. This is a long road of which we are at the beginning.

Antibiotics are drugs designed to destroy or inhibit the growth of bacteria harmful to humans, animals or other organisms. I acknowledge the potential lifesaving benefits of antibiotics, they are an important part of modern healthcare. But the widespread overuse of antibiotics in industrialized societies is creating superbugs, bacteria that are resistant to all known antibiotics. This problem was the subject of the film Resistance which I recently saw on Netflix. The issue of superbugs is not new and the discoverer of penicillin, Alexander Fleming discussed resistance in the mid 1940s. If you subject bacteria to an effective antibiotics most will die off, but surviving bacteria can develop resistance to that antibiotic. If you repeat the process often enough you risk creating bacteria over time, that become resistant to every antibiotic they have been exposed to.

Sometimes humans are given antibiotics when they are not needed, and so we may carry around bacteria that have a resistance to some antibiotics, this is a problem in itself. A key point that the film Resistance makes is that contemporary farming methods can involve the routine administration of antibiotics to hundreds of millions of animals every year. Antibiotics appear to make some animals grow bigger, thus increasing their cash value. However intensively farmed animals can live in insanitary conditions, exposed to fecal matter for most of their lives. Forcing animals to live in an environment where high levels of dangerous bacteria are present, thus necessitating the use of antibiotics as a routine measure, can be described as a perfect breeding ground for superbugs.

The standards of animal welfare vary from country to country and the use of antibiotics in the EU generally is lower than some other parts of the world. But it’s still  a major problem according to a recent report. Conceptually the idea of eating animals is increasingly unacceptable to many people. However the logic of forcing animals to live in terrible conditions their whole lives, only sustained by large amounts of antibiotics is obviously flawed. Not only are people eating animals that have endured life long suffering underpinned by the consumption of drugs. But this process may also be creating bacteria resistant to those drugs. The use of last-resort antibiotics for humans such as colostin, is increasing according to official data. When colostin is used it can indicate other antibiotics were ineffective against the harmful bacteria.

So what has this got to do with fermentation and probiotics? Firstly antibiotics generally kill and inhibited some good bacteria. Where health is at risk this is clearly an appropriate course of action. However as the importance of gut flora to health becomes better understood we should consider the need to maintain gut bacteria at healthy levels. Secondly the better our overall health the lower the risk of illness and presumably the less need there will be to take antibiotics. Just to be clear, probiotics are not a substitute for antibiotics, there are some very dangerous bacteria in our environment for which antibiotics may be the only cure. My position is to abandon the overuse of antibiotics in animals and humans so that when we (and animals) get really sick we will have antibiotic treatments that continue to work. The third point is eating animals that have lived a life in potentially dangerous bacteria, sustained by routine antibiotic consumption seems irrational.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to maintain animals in healthy conditions, with feed rich in probiotics, reducing the need for antibiotics in all but essential cases?