Lisa Owen: Welcome back. Let's start with a list.. sugar taxes…fluoridation…overuse of antibiotics... vaccination…allergies.. who in their right mind would want to wade into these most heated of debates? Our next guest, that's who. Professor Mike Berridge is a leading international cancer researcher and a distinguished research fellow working at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research. He's the author of a new book by our friends at Bridget Williams books called 'The Edge of Life'. Mike Berridge is in the studio with me. Good morning.
Mike Berridge: Hi, Lisa.
Why have you written this book? Is it because you're fed up with the myths and the pseudoscience that we seem to be seeing everywhere?
No. It's really because there's an issue with knowledge. We carry out our experiments; we work in laboratories; we generate knowledge. That knowledge accumulates, but that knowledge doesn't always filter through very effectively to the public. And that communication gap, I think, is something that needs to be addressed. So this book, really, was a way of communicating some science and getting people to think about the science, bring science into… put science on an equal basis with people's points of views.
So make us better informed? Let's talk about some of the issues that you looked at. Cleanliness – well, science has given us better hygiene and sanitation, but do you think that we've gone too far, and what are the consequences of that?
Yeah, we've certainly gone too far, and this starts very early in life when children are very young. We need to be exposed to our environment. You might think of it very much as a vaccination, as a tolerisation to our environment. And that process is necessary. If we clean things too much, if we don't expose kids to the environment, if we don't expose them to foods that, perhaps, we're allergic to, then those kids will carry on with the health problems that we have. So we've got to rethink the way in which we are addressing some of these health issues, and exposure to a wide range of environmental things, to food, are going to have massive effects on allergies, allergic… respiratory allergic problems and food allergies.
You talk about kids there. How important are those early years, and what years are you talking about?
Yeah, right from when… There's a movement at the moment to get kids eating food, I think – at least exposed to food. It doesn't really matter whether they're eating the food, but exposed at a very early age, perhaps 6, 9 months. And certainly between 1 and 2 years is one of the periods in child development when the immune system is developing massively, as it does in the first year as well, and we need to ensure that we make the maximum use of that early-lifehood exposure, because that stays with us for life. By the time you're 2, you're locked in.
So the time has passed? Under 2s, what are you saying to parents, then? It's OK for your kids to eat a bit of dirt and roll around in the mud?
Outside, things that you ingest are in fact working to tolerise you, to make you resistant to whatever that infectious organism is. Our bodies are covered in bacteria. We have more bacteria in our bodies than we have human cells. And we need to learn how to live with these bacteria. We've never thought of it much in the past. We've just regarded them as baggage, if you like. We've got a few million or billion of them in our bodies, and they do their thing, and it's always been thought that they are important for complex carbohydrate digestion. That's what these bugs do. But, no, those bugs are important in virtually every aspect of our health and wellbeing, and it's the development of our immune system, our metabolism and the functioning of our brain all involve our getting on with and nurturing our microbes as well as, what we think of as, our human being.
It goes right back to birth, though, doesn't it? Because you talked about the fact that we have very high rates of Caesars here – 25 percent of births by Caesarean section – and that is lowering kids' immunity, so do we need to limit the number of C-sections?
Yes, that's a discussion that is ongoing at the moment and certainly there are some countries that have far too many. 50 percent in China and Brazil is very very high. The Netherlands has a very low level, and we can see enormous differences in allergic diseases between those with the highest and those with the lowest levels of C-sections.
So do we need to take action here around that?
C-section is important. It's a medical procedure, and we use it when it's appropriate. We just should be careful that we don't overuse it, but that's a discussion between the public and the medical profession.
Well, when you're saying that lack of exposure to parasites and germs in childhood suppresses the immune system and that's why we have high asthma rates and high allergy rates, can we say that now for sure? Has science actually proved that now?
Yes, it has. It's proved it in a number of different ways, not only in experiences with humans and with people that have particular diseases, but in animal models that have replicated the issues that microbial exposure is extremely important. If you raise, for example, a mouse in a sterile environment, that mouse has enormous problems. It just will not survive. In fact, you can't survive without your microbes.
So, there's been much discussion in our office about this. The five-second rule for eating food off the floor is fine, and maybe we should actually stay a bit dirty like the guy in the news this week who hasn't had a shower for 12 years.
Yeah, don't overdo the cleanliness thing. We tend to follow advertising, promotion, there's a new gadget we've innovated in some area to make things more cleaner, but do we really need all of this?
So you think—?
The view from a health point of view is that we need to minimise that. It's still important. We need to drink clean water. We need to know that water is clean. We need to have a certain level of cleanliness, but don't overdo it.
So do you think advertising has played a big part in this? Because when you turn on the TV, you see the wipes and the sprays all the time.
Yeah, yeah, very much. Business and profit drive a lot of the issues. Those make money, they build the economy, but we need to make decisions about where the boundaries are, what's of benefit to us as humans in terms of our health and where that interfaces with the business model.
I want to talk about sugar now. You talk about the likes of Coke, because priming— And I mean Coca-Cola is priming young people for a suite of health problems later in life. So should there be restrictions on that kind of product like they are on tobacco?
Yes, that's coming. That's a discussion again that's ongoing in the community, whether that takes the form of attacks, whether it takes the form of other measures. Public education is something that will evolve over time, but—
As a scientist, though, what's your view? Personally, what's your view on whether there should be attacks on those kinds of foods?
I think attacks, the evidence, and the modelling that's been done has suggested... and work that's ongoing in countries like Mexico would suggest — although the end results aren't in yet — suggest that a 20 percent tax in New Zealand would have, according to the modellers, something like a $30 million benefit to New Zealand in terms of health.
So you personally would think that would be worth trying?
So I think there is value in thinking that is less negative feeling about something we now know conclusively is bad for our health because it's just an instant rush of sugar into the blood, raising our blood-sugar levels and predisposing us, if you do it again and again, to diseases like type II diabetes.
So where does personal choice come into it, though? You know, where does—? Because people always talk about nanny state, and what about moderation and personal choice?
Well, of course, you have personal choice. But personal choice is very much dictated by advertising and particularly advertising to young kids, who become locked into certain ways of thinking to processed foods. My view on all of this is if your body has to work hard, it's good for you. In other words, with regard to food, if you have to chew it, if you have to digest it, if it doesn't go straight into your bloodstream, it's going to be better for you than something that you don't have to work to get the benefit out of.
We've only got a little bit of time left, but I really want to ask you about medication. You say that we're over-medicated, including using antibiotics. Well, you can't get those things without doctor's prescription. So if we don't need them, why are doctors giving them to us?
Doctors are giving them to us because people ask for them. People demand. People don't like going to the doctor and coming away with just advice. Well, just... live your life normally and get over it. That's not what people go to a doctor for. The medical profession realises this. They are taking measures. They know that not only antibiotics but many other medications are over-prescribed. We've become a medicated society, and we need to let our bodies do the work; to use medicine much more discerningly. To use when it's needed. Not to use it on demand.
All right. Thank you very much for joining me this morning, Professor Mike Berridge.