In the past few years, it seems that everyone is talking about gut health. As someone who has never really suffered from “gut issues,” I must admit that I didn’t give all that much thought to my microbiome. However, when I started developing rosacea, I began researching the connection to gut health. Suddenly, I was devouring articles on how to improve my gut health and wondering if there was, indeed, a connection to the rosacea I was experiencing. I experimented with cutting gluten out of my diet and began making my own probiotic-rich yogurt, but honestly, I was hard-pressed to tell if it made any difference to my gut health.
Wanting to understand the role microbes play in our overall health, I recently watched The Invisible Extinction, a fascinating documentary in which two renowned scientists, Martin Blaser, M.D., and Gloria Dominguez-Bello, Ph.D., work to save the vanishing microbes that may be key to our survival. I was intrigued by the research they’ve compiled on how the overuse of antibiotics; elective C-sections, which cause babies to miss out on key microbes received during vaginal delivery; and processed foods are destroying our microbiomes and leading to food allergies and a host of chronic illnesses. In the film, interesting questions are asked about the impact our gut health has on obesity, autism, and more.
Here, we share our interview with co-directors and co-producers Steven Lawrence and Sarah Schenck on how their own experiences with antibiotics led them in search of answers.
What inspired the making of The Invisible Extinction?
Schenck: My youngest child nearly died when she was three. This was a shock, because as a baby, she ate everything. She had no allergies. Then she contracted strep throat twice in one year and took antibiotics both times. A few months later, after eating a pecan cookie, I watched her face go scarlet and her lips swell as her airways shut down. We got her to the ER in the nick of time. The first thing I did when we got her home was to seek answers.
I’m a filmmaker, so film is the medium I used to interrogate this challenge. Our family’s issue is shared by millions of people worldwide who suffer from severe food allergies.
Lawrence: In the 1990s, I was given multiple rounds of antibiotics for what appeared to be a persistent parasitic infection I had picked up making films in Russia and Central Asia. As treatment progressed, instead of getting better, I developed debilitating gut, allergy, and autoimmune problems that made life very hard for over a decade and still trouble me. I searched for answers, but back then no one knew that nuking the gut with antibiotics could derail the immune system. The word microbiome did not even exist.
So, when by chance I met Sarah at a dinner in 2014, and she told me she was working on a documentary about the microbiome and looking for a partner, I was highly motivated to collaborate. By then, I knew what had happened to me was happening to tens of millions of others, and I wanted to use my experience to help make a film that would be a wake-up call for the millions of people who aren’t yet aware of how critical our gut microbes are to our health.
How did you come to learn of Martin Blaser’s and Gloria Dominguez-Bello’s work?
Schenck: When I began looking for an explanation for why my kid suddenly had a severe food allergy—which now describes one kid out of every classroom, a shocking rise in just a few decades—the most compelling research was by Dr. Martin Blaser, who tied the rise in food allergies to the loss of our ancient microbes, primarily from the overuse of antibiotics.
My life’s mission is to translate scientific concepts into accessible stories for regular people, so I began shooting a film. I tracked down Dr. Blaser and found that he had a rare gift. He could convey complex scientific ideas in engagingly simple terms. His wife, Venezuelan microbiologist Dr. Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello, was equally brilliant and charismatic. I’d found the fulcrum of the film in this duo. Then I sought out a seasoned collaborator in documentarian Steven Lawrence.
There are so many revolutionary ideas posed by the film and to the connection made to common conditions in relation to the microbiome. In what ways do you think a film such as this can move the needle in terms of spurring additional research or making people think twice about how they use antibiotics.
Schenck: That is a great question, because there are many things we can do to spur research and inspire people to make better choices. It all starts with sharing key information in a way that people can make sense of it. We hope our film does that.
In terms of making better choices, first and foremost, please don’t pressure your doctor to give you a prescription for antibiotics unless they’ve diagnosed you with an illness that will respond to antibiotics. One of the most shocking things I learned while making the film is that half of all prescriptions in the U.S. are useless. That is, they’re being prescribed for illnesses that don’t respond to antibiotics. So, you’re doing harm to your good bugs with no potential gain.
Dr. Blaser clarifies, “Many scientists think the number of unnecessary prescriptions is even higher in some populations. For example, women and Southerners are prescribed significantly more antibiotics than men—that makes no sense as their rates of infectious disease aren’t markedly different.” Dr. Blaser also advises, even if you do have an illness that will respond to antibiotics, like strep, if you’re not too sick and you don’t have a compromised immune system, it’s fine to ask your doctor if it is okay to wait a few days before beginning the prescription. Most upper respiratory illnesses and ear infections, common reasons for antibiotic prescriptions, will resolve on their own in a few days.
We want our film to inspire people to demand of our elected officials—via signing petitions and starting conversations—to support the development of better diagnostics, so you know when you really do need to take antibiotics; and also to develop new, narrow-spectrum antibiotics that target certain pathogens instead of broad spectrum ones that carpet bomb all our microbes.
We also would like to see the government support policies that give mothers more support to breastfeed their children and only have C-sections when they are medically necessary. For example, we’d like to see the end of elective C-sections.
And finally, why are we pouring public dollars into making highly processed food that is cheap and enticing? I’d like to see more support, making it easier for all families to eat healthy whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that provide the fiber that nourishes our good bugs.
What do you think are some of the film’s biggest takeaways?
Schenck: There’s no free lunch. We need our precious antibiotics. They are one of the greatest miracles of medicine and absolutely one of the reasons why our life spans have extended so dramatically this past century, but there are costs to using them.
There are easy ways to support your good bugs: Eat fermented foods, focus on fiber, enjoy playing in the dirt and having a pet or working with animals.
In the film, there is talk about the importance of establishing a microbe bank to preserve the biodiversity of human-associated microbiota, which might prove essential to treating illnesses and diseases in the future. What progress, if any, is being made to establish this microbe vault?
Lawrence: The Microbiota Vault has entered a two-year launch phase in collaboration with the University of Basel; University of Lausanne; ETH Zurich; and Rutgers University, where Dominguez-Bello and Blaser are based. In this pilot phase, they are optimizing protocols for preservation, running through real deposits regulations, establishing deposit agreements and the policies for open access of the data generated from DNA sequencing of the deposits that depositors may request. The next step is to finalize finding a location for the physical vault. For news, visit https://www.microbiotavault.org/.
The Invisible Extinction is now available to stream.