Our bodies contain more bacteria than they do cells, about 100 trillion give or take. The amount of bacteria in our bodies outnumber our human cells by 10 to 1. New research on the human micro biome is providing stark evidence that we've been disregarding the importance of this invisible life force. Rampant overuse of antibiotics, a high precedence of cesarean sections, hand sanitizer at the forefront of every public facility and a blatant ignorance of the importance of healthy gut flora has led to an all out health crisis.
No doubt most of us have heard about probiotic supplements being useful for treating poor digestion, but that's only the beginning. Probiotics and cultured foods are useful for promoting weight loss, certain skin conditions and chronic fatigue syndrome, treating mental health conditions, boosting the immune system, treating allergies and potentially decreasing the likelihood of developing certain cancers.
The bacteria dwelling within us are a prime example of a microbial evolutionary trait that has allowed humans and animals to adapt better to our environment.
As Michael Pollan so poignantly puts it in his essay for the NY times, "Some of My Best Friends Are Germs":
"Exquisitely reactive and adaptive, bacteria can swap genes and pieces of DNA among themselves. This versatility is especially handy when a new toxin or food source appears in the environment. The microbiota can swiftly come up with precisely the right gene needed to fight it -- or eat it."
Within the medical community it has been a tireless fight to understand how microbes affect our health. We started by shunting them and creating capacities to destroy bacteria both good and bad but things are starting to take a different direction. With the rise of the antibiotic resistant superbugs we are learning the true capacity of how microbes adapt to circumstance. So it only makes sense, if the bad bacteria can adapt and strengthen so can the beneficial ones. Were we as a society to focus more on the methods for promoting the beneficial microbes we could take our attention of destruction of the good the bad and the ugly and simply let evolution do the dirty work so to speak.
In the concise conclusion to the in depth research paper, "From Structure to Function: the Ecology of Host-Associated Microbial Communities," we see the beginning of a dramatic shift in traditional allopathic medicine.
"Microbial pathogens are viewed as the enemy that needs to be eliminated in order to restore health. Increasingly powerful weapons in the form of antibiotics with increased activity and spectrum were felt to be necessary in order to win this war. However, as has been learned through warfare throughout human history, collateral damage to innocent bystanders increases the cost of success on the battlefield. In terms of the human microbiota, the rise of antibiotic resistance, the appearance of opportunistic organisms such as Clostridium difficile and VRE, and an increase in allergic diseases (via the hygiene hypothesis) and autoimmune diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease, are all thought to be a reflection of such collateral damage."
Fecal transplant from healthy individuals to those suffering from the antibiotics resistant gastrointestinal disease Clostridium difficile infection (CDI) showed promising results. Other experiments in fecal transplant from healthy donors shows usefulness in increasing insulin sensitivity in obese individuals as well as colitis.
Another problem that arises when we ignore the health of our gut flora is that of intestinal permeability. When we don't nourish the epithelial lining of our gut the incidence of toxins from our food entering our bloodstream and leading eventually to autoimmune conditions becomes much more common. Enter the seemingly random increase in autoimmune conditions like celiac disease and things start to make more sense. A highly processed SAD (standard american diet) does nothing but weaken our epithelial lining and make us susceptible to disease.
In examining the microbiome of traditional people vs. modern North American and European people there are dramatic differences. Diseases rampant in modern society have a much lower incidence in societies that haven't adopted the war on germs as we have.
This knowledge begs the question of how we can transcend our current predicament and recalibrate the balance of good and bad bacteria in our microbiomes. Bringing back ancestral practices of consuming fermented foods like sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir and kombucha. Avoiding processed foods which are stripped of both the good and bad microbes. Sticking to locally procured organic free range sources of meat, poultry and dairy ensures we aren't consuming animal products treated with antibiotics.
A good probiotic supplement is another option for recolonizing the micro biome with healthy bacteria. Particularly for those of us who've taken antibiotics or want to treat any sort of immune deficiency.
The time has come for us to lighten up a little, let our children get dirty and play outside unhindered, put down the hand sanitizer, question the necessity of antibiotics at the slightest throat tickle (not that there aren't times when antibiotics are 100 percent necessary). We are moving away from being a germaphobic society because it simply isn't serving us anymore. In a future reflecting current research on the micro biome we should expect to see baby formula complete with the natural probiotics and prebiotics inherent in mothers milk, and sterile processed foods might be made to include beneficial bacteria if they want to remain profitable in a changing market.
The importance of probiotics in maintaining a healthy body and mind cannot be overstated. Changing our perception about germs being all bad is critical if we want to turn around modern problems like the obesity epidemic, astounding rates of mental health problems and diabetes. Harnessing the power of adaptability inherent in our micro biomes could hold the key to overcoming our astounding rates of modern disease.