Can a basic understanding of the Human Microbiome change the way we think of ourselves and provide substantial food for thought as we reflect on who and what we are as a species?
We know that we are made of bones, blood, cells, muscle, etc. and we tend to think that these are what makes us human. However, we often overlook the Human Microbiome. This is a naturally occurring community microorganisms (microbes) in our body – including diverse viruses, fungi, and protozoa – that outnumber human cells almost two to one! While this might sound scary, this thriving community of microbes in our body is working in harmony with our human cells to create life as we know it.
Each region of our body has its own distinct community of microbes living on or in it. – Lita M. Proctor
Thanks to Louis Pasteur, a cornerstone of our modern medicine has been based on the notion of killing germs (i.e. bad microbes). This “war with germs” was born from a history of “battling” bubonic plague, small pox, yellow fever, typhoid, and others, but science is telling us that struggling against germs is not an accurate portrayal of what it means to be healthy.
Rather than thinking of our bodies as a battlefield (fighting off bad germs etc.), humans and microbes must now be seen as a co-evolved system for the mutual benefit of both the host and resident microbes. Health is the result of balanced harmony between resident microbes and human cells, and though antibiotics are helpful in certain applications, there is much reason to be cautious and prudent in their usage.
Routine practices, including the use of antibiotics, may alter the human microbiome by reducing nontargeted bacteria and creating antibiotic resistant strains. -Blaser, M.J. (2011) from Antibiotic overuse: stop killing our beneficial bacteria
Before we dive into the science of the microbiome, let’s consider how this belief structure of war, separation, and homogeneity is applied in other aspects of our life. For example, in politics we draw national boundaries and fight over immigration. We mono-crop ideas as much as we do our agriculture in a fictitious quest for purity. In reality, on a biological level, we aren’t even “purely” human. Our conquest of nature over the centuries has revolved around our fear and inability to seek greater harmony with our environment and embrace the bio-diverse web of life. Luckily, times are changing and science is a guiding force.
So What is a Microbe?
Simply put, a microbe is any living organism that is too tiny to be seen with the naked eye. This includes bacteria and archaebacteria, protists, some fungi and even some very tiny animals that can only be seen with a microscope. These microbes can include germs that are beneficial, as well as those that are harmful. Overall, most of the microbes are beneficial, like enzymes that can provide energy for metabolism, help the body synthesise vitamins, act as a defence against pathogens or help us digest food. The human microbiome is the sum of these communities, which is primarily composed of bacteria and other microbes, such as viruses, protozoa, and fungi. Our emerging understanding of these communities within the human body will continue to bring breakthroughs in every aspect of medicine and well-being.
Scientists now believe that infants are sterile (meaning free of microbes) in the womb and receive their first inoculum of microbes from the mother during natural childbirth. This inoculum goes on to colonize the newborn and initiate a succession of events leading to the development of the child’s own microbiome. The newborn relies on this maternal vaginal microbial inoculum and the additional inoculum of microbes from mother’s breast milk for microbial colonization of all exposed surfaces in and on the infant’s body (e.g., oral, nasal/airways, gut, urogenital, skin). -Lita M. Proctor, Ph.D.
It Starts at Birth
The immune system is completely entwined with the human microbiome, and birth will leave life-long imprints on us. From the moment we are born, our bodies start to learn all different kinds of microbes, distinguishing the helpful ones from the ones that cause diseases. This means that creating a sterile environment in the first weeks, months and years won’t allow the child’s immune system to develop properly. Playing in the dirt, walking around barefoot, putting random things in the mouth should be supervised, but not discouraged.
The latest scientific research is now starting to indicate that if the baby is not properly seeded with the mother’s own bacteria at birth, then the baby’s microbiome, in the words of Rodney R Dietert, Professor of Immunotoxicology at Cornell University, is left “incomplete”. Consequently, that baby’s immune system may never develop to its full potential, leaving that infant with an increased risk of developing one or more serious diseases later in life. –Toni Harmon, Huffington Post
It’s All About Lifestyle Choices
Our hormones, where we live, how we interact with our environment (do we get our hands in the dirt enough?), and what we eat are all influencing factors on our microbiome. Knowing this, you may want to consider how your daily lifestyle may affect your microbial colonies. What kinds of soap do you use? Do you really need to shampoo every day? What kinds of food do you eat and which kinds of microbes are you feeding?
Many researchers believe that certain bug-guts or parasites are actually causing us to crave certain foods. With discipline, we can learn to feed our bodies food that encourages happy and healthy colonies of microbes and maybe even eat our way to enlightenment. Significant research shows us the importance of eating live foods because they are rich in enzymes. Healthy serotonin, and dopamine levels, as well as mood are also related to gut flora and food. Eating cultured and fermented foods are also important.
Human Microbiome Project (HMP)
Much of the inspiration and information for this piece came from a longer and more in-depth article by Lita M. Proctor, Ph.D. Lita is Program Director of the Human Microbiome Project (HMP), which is, “an 8-year, $194M trans-NIH Common Fund Initiative to create a community resource of data, research resources and clinical and scientific approaches for this emerging field.” Medical and scientific initiatives like this are very hopeful as they invite us to look at the big picture, think holistically, and consider new ways to embrace health in a community context.
We are a web of interconnected organisms, we are an organism within a larger organism called Planet Earth. Having a good relationship with our internal and external communities requires mindfulness, awareness and healthy lifestyle choices. We are only at the very beginning of being able to comprehend the magnificence that is life within this biological diverse realm that we inhabit. Keep learning, growing, talking with friends, and raising the overall vibration, be good to your microbes and they will be good to you!