Malnutrition is a tragic problem that affects more than 45 million children around the globe. It doesn’t only affect the kids’ weight, but it also wreaks havoc on biological systems throughout their bodies, leaving vulnerable children with permanent or fetal conditions. Therefore, a new study is now discovering a treatment that boosts gut microbes as means of saving malnourished kids.
According to UNICEF data, more than 1 in 5 children under the age of 5 are suffering from undernutrition. Thus, almost 149.2 million kids, mainly living in low- and middle-income countries, are coping with malnutrition on a daily basis.
Furthermore, the condition can cause a stunt in growth, leaving children short and underweight for their age and height. It also affects the microbiome, the healthy bacteria, and other microbes that live in our digestive tracts. Relatively, inadequate nutrition harms the children’s metabolism, bone growth, brain function, immune system, and other essential bodily functions.
However, the most tragic consequence of this avoidable condition is death. The World Health Organization’s data prove that almost half of the 5.2 million children under age 5 who died in 2019 are linked to nutrition-related issues. Also, even though the pandemic is no longer reaping the lives of millions around the globe, experts expect that it will continue to disrupt nutrition programs, along with families’ ability to find and afford food. Yet, it is still early to roll the dice on the pandemic’s effect on children’s malnutrition.
“We are not yet out of the woods in many countries,” says Denish Moorthy, a senior technical advisor on global nutrition initiatives for John Snow Inc., a Boston-based public health management consulting and research organization.
Discovering a new food supplement
In the past, scientists developed calorie-dense supplemental foods to prevent death while encouraging normal growth. Alas, these methods proved to have a limited ability in preventing long-term damage to the body.
However, after a decade of hard work, Jeffrey Gordon, a microbiologist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and his team linked the gut microbiome disrepair with ongoing malnutrition. They believe that the gut microbiome problem lingers even after feeding the kids foods designed to boost their weight. Moreover, since these gut microbes are vital to overall development, the lack of them stymies efforts to help these kids grow normally.
“Malnutrition is not just about providing food, no matter how great the food is or about amazing results in trials,” Moorthy says. “This is the first step toward understanding some of the biologies better and that is key.”
To further understand the necessity of healthy microbiomes, one must reflect more on human biology. The human body contains more microbiomes, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and single-celled archaea, than “human” cells. Furthermore, scientists have found a steady relation between microbiomes and diseases, as well as allergies, obesities, and inflammatory problems.
The treatment mainly aims to heal microbiomes while saving children from famine. It is also primarily made out of locally available, cheap, and culturally acceptable ingredients. Therefore, since the study took place in Bangladesh, the diet includes chickpeas, soy, peanuts, bananas, and a blend of oils and micronutrients.
“Microbes don’t see bananas or peanuts – they just see a blend of nutrients they can use and share,” said Gordon.”This formulation worked best in animals and humans, producing the greatest repair.”
The study also noted that diets rich in rice or lentils don’t yield similar resolutions and might even cause more damage to the gut. Moreover, since the study is relatively new, experts should continue monitoring the children for a long time to determine whether the treatment’s effect lasts after children stop eating it.
Unfortunately, Gordon also cushions that not even the best microbiome-focused treatment can be enough to save most severely malnourished children without the intervention of tubes or intravenous nutrient injections.
Opening new doors
According to Justin Sonnenburg, a microbiologist at Stanford University, the study “raises the bar for what we should be trying to achieve in gut microbiome studies.” It also opens a new door for other treatments. For example, such treatments can potentially forestall the damage of many health issues like bone development, brain function, and the immune system.
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