Old Dirt, New Tricks?
When you hear the word ‘bacteria’ you might think of the pesky filth that gathers invisibly on doorknobs, tube train handles and toilet seats. Luckily, or so you’re told, the vile stuff is almost entirely extinguishable through the use of hand sanitizers, cleaning wipes and industrial sprays – to the tune of 99%, in fact, if products like Cillit Bang and Febreze live up to their advertising campaigns (controlling for the mysterious 1% that science may have failed to discover thus far). Thanks to the paranoid demonizing of ‘bacteria’ in the media we have now become paranoid cleaners ourselves, smothering our kitchen utensils in soap, soaking our clothes with bleach, and wringing our hands in foamy sinks like Lady Macbeth on a rampage. Perhaps the good old dirty days of previous generations are a lost cause – either way, I won’t try to resurrect them today.What I do want to tell you about, and what I hope can be resurrected, is also ‘bacteria,’ but in a very different context. Did you know that for every cell in your body, there is a microbe inside of you to complement it? If you’re not impressed yet perhaps you will be if I tell you how many cells are estimated to be in your body – 37.2 trillion. That means 37.2 trillion living creatures are living inside of you right now. What’s more, is that these creatures can communicate, cooperate and even go to war with one another. What’s even more crazy, is that we only know a tiny fraction about the kinds of bacteria that live inside of you at any one time – the vast majority of it is a mystery. Now, what’s goddam-out-of-this-world-
knock-your-socks-off-insane, is that the balance of bacteria living inside of you could mean the difference between a long life and an early death – if the latest discoveries in microbiology turn out to be true…Now, if I were to outline the latest discoveries in microbiology to you in this blog post, I would probably be typing until the end of my days. However, the main takeaway is that bacteria seem to play a crucial (if not totally causal) role in health outlook from immune function to gene expression and metabolic flexibility. The evidence? All around us:
*Babies born by cesarean section fail to be exposed to the same levels of maternal bacteria as those born vaginally – the poor health statistics of these children have now been linked to their rather baron and non-diverse microbiomes. Many hospitals are now smearing cesarean-born babies with their mother’s bodily fluids so as to allow large numbers of bacteria to infiltrate and proliferate. The results of doing so are in the preliminary stages, but have been promising*The over-use of antibiotics has led to ‘unexplained’ poor health outcomes in a large number respective patients – it is now estimated that even brief exposure to a potent antibiotic is enough to permanently alter the bacteria inside of a human body. This has been demonstrated in clinical trials with patients suffering from an abnormally high and wide range of post-antibiotic ‘unexplainable” conditions, from chronic fatigue and diabetes to obesity and immune supression.*The use of probiotic strains such as Bifidobacterium and S Boulardii (which is actually a probiotic yeast) in recent clinical trials have shown promise in alleviating digestive disorders, and even some endocrine dysregulations. In fact, S Boulardii has been shown to be more effective than Nystatin (a leading prescription anti-fungal) in eradicating candida overgrowths.*Tests on civilizations with the lowest rates of mortality and chronic disease have revealed a positive association between health and diversity of microbiota inside the body – the Hadza Tribe of Tanzania are the current winners, with the most diverse and plentiful cultures of bacteria going.*Trials in FMT therapy (prepare yourself…Fecal Matter Transplants – patients have stool samples of healthy controls rectally inserted to promote infiltration and proliferation of the healthy donor strains in their own bodies) have shown substantial health improvements in patients after just a few treatment sessions – one trial even decreased an obese man’s BMI to normal levels with no other interventions.Hopefully that’s enough information to mull over for now. But what should you do with all of it? Well, if you’ve got the time and money (and curiosity), you might want to have your microbiome studied in a lab – of course, your cultures will transform frequently, so results are very much transient, but useful for a time nontheless. Genova Diagnostics are pretty good with this. Secondly, you might want to read up on which strains have been shown to be the most effective in promoting human health – you might even want to supplement with some of these (if you want the most diverse strain on the market, with the most promise in clinical trials to date, try VSL#3, and thank me later). Thirdly, you might want to tweak your diet to promote the growth of certain strains – for instance, if you want to increase your Firmicutes, you chould increase your plant fiber (the Hadza win on this again, with an average daily intake of >35g fiber), and if you want to increase your Bacteroidetes, you chould decrease fiber and replace it with raw meat. It’s worth noting that changes in the microbiome following dietary change can occur within a matter of days. Fourthly, you might want to increase your food exposure overall, so that you’re consuming the most diverse range of foods possible – this way, you stand a good chance of cultivating something beneficial, provided there isn’t something more sinister ready to attack it inside of you. Fifthly, you might want to steer clear of antibiotics, unless you’re in a genuine emergency, as you run the risk of obliterating the very things that could save your life in a crisis. Lastly, you may just want to get down and dirty – play with soil, breathe fresh microbe-ridden air through open windows, eat lots of raw food, and stop being so bloody paranoid! Good ol’ dirt might just be your new best friend!