The recent discovery of a semi-nomadic community of about 15,000 Yanomami people in southern Venezuela(1) has doctors and scientists wondering what we can learn from their guts.
Specifically, what do the gut flora of people who have never been exposed to a modern Western lifestyle look like?
While the exact location of the community has been protected in order to preserve the residents’ privacy, a small team of scientists have been granted permission to live in and study the health of the community in general, especially in direct comparison to the health of the average contemporary Westerner.
What they’ve discovered so far has them looking in new ways at the impact our lifestyles may have on our gut bacteria.
Gut Bacteria Diversity Among The Yanomami People
We are all born with a team of microbes living in our guts. These microbes form the basis of our lifelong microbiome, which is undoubtedly affected by modern lifestyle factors such as diet and modern medicine.
In particular, the use of antibiotics, antibacterial soap, and processed foods may be leading to less diversity in our guts. According to the researchers, the Yanomami people appear to have a more diverse gut microbiome than most people living modern lifestyles.
What’s The Connection Between Gut Microbiome Diversity And Disease?
There is a large body of evidence supporting the theory that gut bacteria diversity – or lack thereof – plays an important role in the pathogenesis of irritable bowel syndrome (or IBS) and other related disorders(2).
Many doctors believe that modern diets and other lifestyle factors are a root cause of disruptions in the gut flora that can lead to the development of such diseases.
The Delicate Balance In Our Guts
Some doctors believe that exposure to antibiotics, especially early on in life, can affect the development of gut flora. Since the Yanomami people have never been exposed to antibiotics, they present scientists with a unique opportunity to test this hypothesis.
The Yanomami people have consented to having the microbes in their mouths, skin and feces studied by international researchers(3). So far, some of the findings have been in line with what researchers anticipated – the microbes from the Yanomami peoples’ skin and guts are significantly more diverse than those of urbanized people – but some have been more surprising.
Antibiotic Resistance: A Complex Problem
One of the more surprising findings that researchers came across was that the microbes from the Yanomami people exhibit signs of antibiotic resistance – despite the fact that the Yanomami have never encountered modern antibiotics.
This has scientists looking at antibiotic resistance in a new light.
“Antibiotic resistance is a natural feature of bacteria in the human body,” says Dr. Dantas, in a report for BBC News(4).
“It’s not something created by antibiotic use. But it does get amplified when antibiotics are used.”
However, Dr. Dantas still believes that doctors and patients have a responsibility to limit antibiotic use as much as possible.