All kinds of exciting things have been happening, and I haven’t written about any of them. Some of them involve running, and they will appear in the next post. This one is about my other current favorite topic, the human microbiome.
Last week The New York Times had two very interesting articles, one about eating the weeds in your backyard, and another about the human microbiome. The first one speaks for itself. Apparently eradication can be dropped in favor of ingestion. Maybe I’ll give it a try. In any case it eases my weed aversion just that much more. The second article covers research being done in association with the Human Microbiome Project. Here’s my favorite quote:
Dr. Barnett Kramer, director of the division of cancer prevention at the National Cancer Institute, who was not involved with the research project, had another image. Humans, he said, in some sense are made mostly of microbes. From the standpoint of our microbiome, he added, “we may just serve as packaging.”
I told you so! Here’s another million-dollar quote that will make you think a bit the next time you’re about to flush:
“The gut is not jam-packed with food; it is jam-packed with microbes,” Dr. Proctor said. “Half of your stool is not leftover food. It is microbial biomass.” But bacteria multiply so quickly that they replenish their numbers as fast as they are excreted.
Doctor Proctor! I mean, really. How apt is that?
Publications appeared in Nature and PLoS – and there was recently a special issue of Science dedicated to the gut microbiome. For once the Nature article is open source, so if you’re a science geek you can click on the link above to read the whole thing without a subscription! Damn, life is good sometimes.
The human microbiomes studied in the experiment had to be “healthy” – and it was interesting to read about how difficult it was to find truly healthy people. Half of the people who volunteered were rejected for one reason or another. Cavities, gum disease, yeast infections, you name it. Any critter in there that isn’t part of a “healthy” microbial population could skew the results.
I’m fascinated by how the microbiome might interact – or even govern – our immune systems and brains. There is increasing evidence that the upswing in obesity, t2 diabetes, intestinal ailments like IBS, cancer, autoimmune disease and even psychiatric conditions like autism could be directly related to the microbiome. I look at it like this: over the past 100-150 years, we in the industrialized world have been moving steadily away from a “natural state” – we opt increasingly for uber-processed, shelf-stable foods over natural whole foods that rot in a few days if not eaten. If you were a gut microbe, what would you prefer? A twinkie or a kefir smoothie?
We take care to eradicate as many “germs” in our environments as possible, particularly around babies, in the fear that we’ll get sick. And when, in the course of our lives, we do inevitably get sick, we medicate ourselves ASAP with antibiotics and over-the-counter crap so we don’t have to alter our frenetic lifestyles. If you were a gut microbe, just trying to do your job in concert with the immune system, you wouldn’t have the chance to exercise your function. No, you’d be blasted out of existence. What an affront! What stupidity! You’d be like “oh, whatever. Go ahead and shoot yourself in the foot, you stupid human. We’ve got plenty of other hosts to occupy.”
We ignore diurnal and seasonal cycles, living and working in climate-controlled, artificially lit environments. We’ve abandoned our bodies as a means of locomotion in favor of riding in fossil-fuel-burning metallic structures. With all the time we save, we can go exercise frenetically in gyms or work even harder to earn more money to buy even cooler metallic structures.
If we’re packaging, or, as another scientist put it, a symbiotic environment like coral, maybe we should think about this a little. Maybe we should pay attention to what our hosts need for optimum performance. The warning signs are there, people.
I am sad to report that jelly bellies are probably not optimal from a gut microbiome point of view. I haven’t eaten a single jelly belly in almost a year! I may have to change my banner. Do you have any suggestions? Some kefir grains, maybe? (The fermentation of ideas?) I’m open to anything within reason. Help me out here, friends! And thanks again for stopping by.