Modern medicine and the microbiome



This NPR interview with Dr. Martin Blaser, who directs the Human Microbiome Project at NYU, really grabbed my attention because it addresses a wide range of issues that are linked to the interaction between the human microbiome and some aspects of modern medicine. As someone who is interested in medicine, I believe that it is important for doctors to understand how their decisions about a patient’s course of treatment could affect the patient’s health by altering the microbiome, as is discussed by Blaser. Blaser discusses the idea that antibiotics increase a patient’s risk for obesity because it alters the gut microbiome. Blaser also discusses that babies born by c-section do not begin developing their microbiome from their mother’s birth canal, but instead receive exposure to a skin microbiome. Blaser suggests that babies receive lactobacilli, bacteria that help to break down lactose – the main component in milk, from the birth canal, which helps to build the foundation for the babies’ gut microbiome. He suggests that a study showed that children born by c-section were more likely to have increased fat than naturally born children.

It seems to me that the idea here is that medical advances such as the use of antibiotics to treat disease and c-sections to keep at-risk mothers safe during child birth are causing potentially harmful changes to our microbiomes. However, this is part of what makes me struggle a little bit with this article. These advances in medicine, antibiotics and c-sections, seem to be life-saving practices helping people to overcome bacterial disease and mothers to survive complicated births. But, as this interview suggests, these potential life-saving practices may have health consequences. So how do we balance the harm that is done to people receiving treatment? At this point, it seems that interventions such as antibiotics and c-sections can be crucial in helping people, and so these are things we cannot get rid of. However, I hope that it is possible that future research can be done to help find other interventions for these ailments, or to help to lessen their negative effects. In the meantime, I believe that it would be useful for doctors to at least become more aware of how often they prescribe antibiotics, in order to lessen the occurrence of these harmful effects. This would include determining if infections are caused by bacteria or viruses, in order to reduce the longterm costs of prescribing antibiotics when they are not necessary.

Blaser, Martin. “Modern medicine may not be doing your microbiome any favors.” Interview by Terry Gross. Fresh Air. NPR. 14 April 2014. Radio.



One thought on “Modern medicine and the microbiome

  1. To be sure, C-sections save many lives (infants and mothers alike) and thus are extremely beneficial in certain circumstances (as you mention). However, the hypothesis that the ‘normal’ route of birth is vaginal (and thus what evolution has acted upon) is important for initial colonization has been held up by the data thus far. I think the argument is to use C-sections when medically necessary rather than relying on them as a default given the correlations of later complications in life and changes to the initial colonization. The author’s suggestion of attempting to colonize infants born via C-section with vaginal fluids is really intriguing and I hope that studies are underway to determine whether this could mitigate problems associated with C-sections.

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