While epigenetics, nutritional and functional medicine remain a new field in Malaysia, Joanna Lee learns as a doctor and professor in gastroenterology and hepatology issue a clarion call to current health practitioners and future doctors to look at microbes in the human body in a new way
“We feel that our DNA is our blueprint. The good news is that blueprints can be modified, and it is modified through the genes of the microbes present in the bacteria that we have in us,” said Professor Dato’ Dr. Aminuddin Ahmad, speaking to a fully occupied lecture auditorium at the Faculty of Medicine, Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), Sungei Buloh campus.
He traced the development of understanding microbes in news ways to the completion of the sequencing of the human genome in the late 1990s which subsequently influenced scientists who tried to sequence the genes of bacteria in the human gut, leading to their conclusion that there’s potential in leveraging on the gut as a “diagnostic tool and therapeutic target” (Faith et al). “The human microbiome weighs only about 1.5kg and these microbes contribute to about two million genes compared to the 30,000 genes in the human genome,” Dr. Aminuddin said.
So that makes us about 10% human while the rest of our DNA is in the found in all the bacteria residing in our body.
“A baby’s body will develop his adult form of bacterial colony by the age of three depending on how he is fed, whether breast fed or formula fed,” Dr. Aminuddin said. Breast milk contains oligosaccharides which are a form of prebiotic (food for probiotics, or good bacteria).
Our development of good bacteria is also impacted by how we have been born. “A baby delivered vaginally has more “human” micro gut flora compared to those delivered via Caesarean section,” he said. The baby is already introduced to the microbial world even at the intrauterine stage, in the womb, he added. It is not clear how these microbes cling on to babies during the birthing process with some researchers positing that inoculation occurs when the microbes present in birth fluids swathe babies as they pass through the birth canal. However, recent studies have revealed a difference between the microbes present in babies born vaginally and through C-section.
The link is this: gut bacteria influence our genetic diversity, our normal physiology, our health status and state of disease. Scientists in recent years have come up with studies linking not just 80% of our body’s immunity to the gut, but also our emotional status and mental functions to our gut.
“It is unfortunate that when we first introduce the subject of microbiology or bacteria in our curriculum, bacteria is looked upon as a pathogen. It’s about time we relook at our curriculum and see how beneficial these bacteria are for our daily living and at every point of our lives,” Dr. Amin said.
He further said that the gut’s microbiome protects us against pathogens. However, he admitted that “We are the culprits that prescribe antibiotics, killing a majority of the microbes in our gut. We are also doctors, like me, who used to prescribe proton pump inhibitors (drugs that reduce gastric acid production within the stomach’s walls) that alter the environment of the gut, making it unsuitable for the survival of the gut’s microbiota,” he said.
Dr. Amin also touched on the way our modern diet and stressful lifestyles has altered the way in which our gut functions, resulting in dysbiosis, an imbalance of the microbial community within the guts or on the body, and hormonal imbalances which affect fertility and how we age. Even sleeping at the right time according to our circadian rhythm is vital to allow our body to repair itself. Sleeping seven hours doesn’t cut it, especially if you sleep from 3am to 7am as this disrupts hormonal balance (serotonin) and can cause a person to feel depressed.
His lecture was focused on how the gut’s microbiome is linked to diseases like inflammatory bowel disease and obesity.
Dr. Amin’s lecture is timely as scientists, doctors and the public question the rise in autoimmune diseases. It was previously attributed to genetics but increasingly, many researches are pointing to compromised gut functions as a possible reason for autoimmune diseases.
After his lecture, Dr. Amin held a press conference with his collaborator and friend, Professor Dr. Fred Fändrich, Director of the Department of Applied Cellular Medicine at the Schleswig-Holstein Hospital, University of Kiel, Germany. He specialises in cellular therapy. Dr. Amin’s clinical practice partner and spouse, Dr. Nor Ashikin Mokhtar, founder and executive chairman of Prima Nora Medical Centre and a senior consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist and healthy aging specialist.
Together, they have been working on the areas of regenerative medicine and ageing.
Dr. Amin said, “We have been very successful in managing autoimmune diseases. We are merely focusing on suppressing the immunity. We should look at how we can enhance immunity by say, for example, the food that we take, the supplements and looking at cells involved in our immunity.”
“We have started to create a holistic treatment approach to prevent inflammation. Inflammation is caused when you have a disrupted microbiome which chronically activates immune cells. And these immune cells cause inflammatory products which cause acidity. And acidities is always hampering our regeneration of stem cells which repair,” Dr. Fändrich said.
“That’s my specialty. I have defined a certain population of immune cells which can block and eliminate chronically inflamed immune cells, thereby rebalancing the immune system, getting rid of inflammation, getting rid of acidity, and thereby triggering normal stem cell functions. So, that’s the concept of anti-ageing,” he explained further.
Dr. Nor Ashikin said, “When you’re sick it’s as if there’s a pill for all ills. But in fact, understanding that the gatekeeper to your health is your gut, which is where personalised medicine comes in and although you cannot alter the genes, taking the right nutrition can actually change the expression of the genes for better health.”
In relation to nutrition, Dr. Fändrich felt that the food we eat is one of the major risk factors for chronic diseases. “It’s a US$250 billion market for just herbicides and pesticides worldwide. It takes five minutes of brushing apples to get rid of 90% of pesticides on them in a study done by the Department of Toxicology in Germany. He added, “You must know, herbicides and pesticides were originally developed for chemical warfare as nerve poisons. They interfere with electron transport in your mytochrondial membrane. And if that is disrupted, you produce lots of oxygen radicals that is so detrimental. If we could go back to organic, natural food, we could avoid so many problems.”