You And Your Microbiome

Microbiome If you are old enough and nerdy enough, you might remember the Star Trek: Next Generation episode where Dr. Beverly Crusher falls in love with a symbiont and its host. The being is lovely, sensitive, warm, and looks amazingly like a dripping wet esophagus just pulled from a dead cow. Not the stuff that human love-dreams are made of. But the host is one good lookin’ man who is able to bring Beverly and the symbiont together in, well, special ways. But, alas, the host is dying. Unable to save him, the symbiont takes on a new host. Beverly is excited and anxious to resume their love and when they meet we are all shocked to learn that the new host is an attractive woman. Beverly is unable to reconcile her love for the symbiont with the female host and breaks off the relationship. (Go here for the full episode description.)

Are You Only 10% Human?

I thought of this when I read a report from ScienceDaily (here) that humans have ten times more microbial cells on and in them than they have human cells. Who would’ve thunk it? For every one-hundred cells in your body there are another 1,000 hanging around that belong to bacteria, molds, and fungi. Does that make us only 10% human? It’s a good headline but not quite true. The National Institutes of Health says here that for every 100 pounds you weigh, about one to three pounds of that is due to microbes. So though their number is tremendous – about 400 trillion cells! – due to their size, microbes make up only a small part of our weight. But in a very real sense, humans are simply a scaffold for an enormous denizen of energetically reproducing microbial colonies that live on and in you.

Your Microbiome and Health

MicrobiomeHow important are these communities to human health and well being? It’s known that we are hosts to all kinds of microbes but their numbers, diversity, and effects on health are largely a mystery. One interesting new finding is called ‘host specificity.’ Though not definitive, the study found that, when they list the microbe populations on different people, about half are shared by everyone. The other half appear to be specific to individuals. More research is needed but I wonder if these particular kinds of microbes are specific to families or maybe even to residents of the same area? Could this contribute to an imperceptible scent that distinguishes family members from non-family? Psychologists have shown that family members don’t find their sibling’s natural scent sexually attractive – could this be due to microbes that label siblings as family? Could these specific microbe populations confer immunity or disease? Why are some people sensitive to things like grains and other aren’t? Could there be a microbial component?

Similar questions are asked about microbial populations inside the body. It appears that obese people share certain microbe populations that non-obese people don’t. Could these microbes contribute to obesity or do the habits of the obese promote these particular populations? Some people consider our microbiome a bodily organ. Just like your lungs or your bones, they say, this population provides essential mechanisms for many functions and you likely can’t live without it. Paul Eckberg of Stanford University argues in Diversity of the Human Intestinal Microbial Flora that ‘The human endogenous intestinal microflora is an essential “organ” in providing nourishment, regulating epithelial development, and instructing innate immunity’. Evolutionists wonder how much of our relationship with microbes is an evolutionary dance where both parties help each other survive. Maybe Beverly Crusher wasn’t so different from her symbiont love?

Feed Your Bugs

MicrobiomeIt’s good to keep your bugs healthy. I feed my little monsters with kefir. I drink Lifeway kefir just because I like it (no affiliation but you get a coupon at the website!). And my kids call it their ‘Strawberry Smoothie.’ Believe me, it’s probably the best real food that they eat so I’m not saying anything about it being good for them. There might be more organic or healthier brands but I’m not much of a fan of warm and lumpy fermented goat’s milk.

The key is to include fermented foods in your diet. Fermentation is the act of microbes using or consuming sugar and leaving waste products. This is how we get beer and wine so it can’t all be bad, right? For a healthy gut you want a live, active culture of microbes. Common foods with live cultures are yogurt, kefir, pickles, sauerkraut, and even from some cheeses. Several Asian foods are also fermented. You don’t need much. If microbes are good at anything it’s reproduction. So a couple of swigs or bites can be a real help for gut health.

Other than eating real food, please ignore anyone trying to sell you stuff to maintain, grow, preen, etc, etc, your microbiome. Unless you have recently had your GI tract swept clean with radiation treatment, they are selling something you do not need. Eat an apple. Drink water. Lick some grass. Just eat real food and you will be fine.

Fun Facts

Interestingly, it appears that our normal flora changes over time. This page from the University of Utah Department of Health Sciences begins with:

“Our first dose of microbes comes from our mother. Babies delivered vaginally are covered in a film of microbes as they pass through the birth canal. Included in the mix are bacteria that help babies digest their first meal. Babies delivered by cesarean section are colonized mainly by skin microbes—a very different set of species.”

From there it briefly describes how the microbiome changes as we age.

Readers will also be happy to learn that researchers find ‘significant difference between stool and mucosa community composition’. So your spit and your poop are different. Good to know!

A fun read. Eighty million(!) bacteria pass between lips with a 10-second kiss.

Another interesting read. The Hygiene Hypothesis. Does a clean environment for adults and children promote or hinder well being.

Are All Microbes Healthy?

Decidedly not.

Remember that there are all manner of unhealthy microbes that cause human ailments from flu to food poisoning to full-out ebola emergencies. The best method of staving off these bad microbes is to protect against ways they might enter your body. Take care of your skin as it’s by far the most important protection we have. Take care of nicks and cuts with antimicrobial cremes and a bandage for cover until the cut is healed. Many microbes pass sexually. Eat a healthy diet so that your healthy internal microbes are able to muscle out unhealthy invaders.

Putting It All Together

Your microbiota is an essential component of your health. Keep stuff that is meant to be outside on the outside by caring for our skin and by making sure that food is fresh. Take care with other body parts. Feed your insides by eating real food and by occasionally noshing on fermented foods. No heroic diets or probiotics are necessary.

So learn to love your bugs! When they feel better you will too!

See my post here about 9 keys to healthy eating. It will save you money and keep you from all kinds of quackery.


Sources For More

Wiki on the Human Microbiome here.
Nice summary at The Scientist here. (Maybe NSFW if you work with idiots…)
A quick primer on probiotics here.

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