Battling the Military’s Most Ancient Foe by Nurturing Gut Bacteria

Slaying the Traveler’s Demon

Battling the Military’s Most Ancient Foe by Nurturing Gut Bacteria

January 23, 2018 - When soldiers deploy to different parts of the world, they must contend with many different threats and challenges. Combat comes to many people’s minds when they think of the hardships of deployment, but another major problem soldiers face is the unwanted encounter of getting sick from bacteria or other pathogens in food or water.

Just as people going on international travel for personal and professional reasons need to be aware of and prepared for potential infectious diseases, military members are also very susceptible to illness-causing bacteria, viruses or other microbes through the food and water they consume. In fact, infectious diarrhea has been among the most common maladies of military deployments.

Over the last few years, an expeditionary unit of researchers at the Natick Soldier Systems Center have been working to prevent these GI illnesses that can cripple a fighting force. They have gone deep into a world that few care to think about: the trillions of bacteria, collectively called the human gut microbiome that call our intestines home. Many institutions around the world are pulling back the veil on the intricate relationships between our microbes and our health. The work at Natick is looking to apply this newfound knowledge to improve the health and performance of warfighters who operate under unique conditions that can cause injury to the gut ecosystem’s delicate balance.

Their goal is to maintain or augment soldiers’ gut microbes in times of high stress, little sleep and extreme exercise, factors that are now known to harm each person’s natural balance of flora. And in several years their work could lead to a prophylactic, food-based intervention that strengthens the body’s own microbiome so that it can better fend off disruptions caused by foreign invaders.

by Emily Tully