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Get your microbes to help fight chronic disease

Health Advisor is a regular column where contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging. Follow us @Globe_Health.

It's a troubling statistic no matter how you look at it. Nearly two-thirds of deaths worldwide are due to chronic ailments including cardiovascular disease, mental health problems and cancer.

Known formally as non-communicable diseases, or NCDs, these conditions cause millions to live a lower quality of life and lead to premature death. In Canada, we lose more than 200,000 people each year to these preventable problems. Worse, the numbers are rising without any sign of levelling off.

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There is a call worldwide to end NCDs and researchers around the globe are working hard to find the right path to health without having to turn to medication. One exciting direction focuses not on creating a better balance with your world, but instead, finding harmony with that collection of trillions of microbes both in and on your body – what has been called since the early 2000s the human microbiome.

What they have found is not only surprising, but may help you to stay healthy.

The premise behind microbiological control of NCDs is quite simple. As the microbes living on and in our bodies outnumber us by a factor of 9:1, they should play a role in any problems we encounter.

There is no doubt a link between the composition of the gut microbiome and intestinal diseases. Good bacteria, such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium make the intestines and the human happy.

If, however, pathogenic bacteria, such as Clostridium and certain strains of E. coli make up the majority of bacteria in the gut, problems tend to arise. But would this theory hold true for other NCDs? Based on a large collection of studies, the answer is an overwhelming, "Yes."

As we age from infant to adult, the good germs create a harmony with the body. If this relationship is stable; we are content. Yet, when bad germs enter the mix, it sends the body into a form of defensive chaos manifested as inflammation, the process by which the body tries to reject them and their despicable ways. While obvious signs include swelling, redness and pain, there is an even worse war happening underneath the skin at the molecular level. You don't notice it but over time, it can lead to problems you cannot ignore.

When inflammation continues, all aspects of the body suffers.

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Perhaps the first and most important discovery along these lines was the association between microbes in the gut and Type 2 diabetes. When the body believes it is under attack, one of the ways to conserve energy for a long battle ahead is to start producing fat. As the inflammation continues, obesity can develop and also insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes.

This link is so strong that a medical professional can now take a closer look at the types of microbes in the gut and be able to predict a risk for the onset of this debilitating disease. And researchers are learning that by altering the makeup of the gut microbiome, diabetes may not only be prevented but treated and even reversed.

While diabetes may have been the first, it is certainly not the last NCD to be associated with your microbes.

Almost all known conditions have at least some involvement with our microbes. Evidence now shows a link with a litany of problems, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, arthritis, asthma, and even breast and colorectal cancer. The evidence is so convincing that some researchers are calling for microbial rather than medical prevention and management of chronic ailments.

When it comes to making your microbiome work for you, there are only two options available: diet and lifestyle.

Eating well is always a good idea and can be tasty too. By focusing on fermented foods, fibre, and good-germs-friendly foods, such as bananas, coconut, omega-3 fatty acids, and dark chocolate, the microbiome will be your friend in health. If you cannot always eat these foods, a good probiotic containing at least 10 billion Lactobacillus bacteria will keep you and your gut smiling. In addition, good exercise, including walking and stretching, can do wonders for your microbiome.

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If, however, you would prefer to prevent chronic disease while sticking to a regimen of poor diet and no exercise, there is one other option available. Known as FMT, or fecal microbiota transplantation, the procedure involves taking the fecal matter from a healthy person with a happy microbiome and placing it into your intestines either by enema or through a tube that goes through your nose.

It's as disgusting as it sounds although extremely effective at keeping the microbiome healthy and helping to keep NCDs at bay.

Jason Tetro is a Toronto-based microbiologist with over 25 years experience in research. He is a self-described germs relationship therapist and strives to improve humanity's bond with the unseen world. He writes for national and international media outlets and is often found on social media where he shares his unique views on microbial health. His science bestseller, The Germ Code is out now. You can follow him on Twitter at @JATetro

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