Poverty and an Unhealthy Gut

Social justice, in particular the “war on poverty,” may have a brand new front: the human gut. More specifically, human gut microbiome. Suzanne Ishaq and her colleagues at the University of Oregon have just published an essay arguing this in the journal PLOS Biology.

In their essay, they point out that poverty creates increased risk of a variety of diseases due to limited access to healthier food, healthier environments and less stressful work and living conditions. They also state that poverty creates health problems by creating unequal access to beneficial microorganisms.

Low-income communities and their inhabitants lack many of the important elements that promote healthy gut microbiomes. These include fresh foods, clean air, pure water, healthy indoor and outdoor environments and access to adequate pre- and post-natal care. Poor overall health and specific health problems such as obesity and related metabolic disorders, a variety of mental health problems and psychiatric disorders have been associated with low microbial diversity.

Like other notable problems in life, these seem to affect poorer individuals and low-income neighborhoods at a disproportionate rate. The issues around gut microbiome which appear to be more frequent in poorer people compound other health issues like pollution, crime and lack of access to regular physical activity.


Ishaq and her team have laid out some ideas to deal with these socioeconomic microbiome disparities. They believe that improving access to fresh foods and eliminating “food deserts” in inner cities, along with improving access to healthy school lunches for poorer kids. This, they think, will help provide the sort of nutrient- and fiber-rich diet needed to maintain microbial diversity.

Also on their list is providing adequate prenatal care and maternity leave to help babies develop the kind of diverse, beneficial range of microorganisms they need from their mothers during delivery and throughout the breastfeeding period. They also suggest changes in zoning and community development, providing more green spaces and improving building maintenance to prevent the deterioration that leads to the proliferation of potentially dangerous microbes that thrive in polluted, dilapidated environments.

The authors argue that access to beneficial microbes should be a human right, since they play such a crucial role in human health and well-being. They believe we have a responsibility to break down social barriers that prevent some people from maintaining a healthy gut microbiome, saying it is an issue of social equity.

“It seems like a stretch to think that microbes are involved in social equity,” said Ishaq, “until you realize that so many social equity issues affect your exposure to microorganisms in some way, and your ability to recruit and maintain a beneficial microbial community.”

It seems that the social justice battle has finally come to “inner space.” At the very least, it has taken a “micro” view of life, to be sure.

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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Journal Reference – Suzanne L. Ishaq, Maurisa Rapp, Risa Byerly, Loretta S. McClellan, Maya R. O’Boyle, Anika Nykanen, Patrick J. Fuller, Calvin Aas, Jude M. Stone, Sean Killpatrick, Manami M. Uptegrove, Alex Vischer, Hannah Wolf, Fiona Smallman, Houston Eymann, Simon Narode, Ellee Stapleton, Camille C. Cioffi, Hannah F. Tavalire. Framing the discussion of microorganisms as a facet of social equity in human health. PLOS Biology, 2019

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