Matters of the Microbiome

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

The unseen fascinates me. Somehow I am drawn to explanations of reality that no one can prove, and which usually go against the mainstream. Alternative medicine, planetary positioning, and plenty of other ideas that are generally unacceptable to talk about at cocktail parties are the very ideas that stoke my inner flame.

I get really excited when I hear about science catching up and supporting notions that were previously unverifiable (and therefore unpopular). That is why I am currently captivated by research on the microbiome.

I have heard plenty of claims about gut health from the alternative medicine community — from figures like Josh Axe, Steven Gundry, etc. — so I decided to look into what “real scientists” have to say about the matter.

So far I have found two who inspire me: Giulia Enders, a lovely German gastroenterologist, and Rob Knight, Professor of Pediatrics and Computer Science & Engineering at University of California, San Diego.

Enders has written a book called “Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ.” What I appreciate about her is she is careful to stick to research, and not draw too many conclusions that are unsubstantiated. She has plenty to say just from the facts. One of my favorites is that, of the total communication that travels between the gut and the brain, 10% goes from brain to gut, 90% goes from gut to brain. Let that sink in and then decide which organ to give a little extra love on this special day. Fermented vegetables, will you be mine?

Rob Knight gives a fascinating talk on the microbiome on YouTube. A couple of stats to consider:

  1. Our bodies consist of roughly 30 trillion human cells, and 39 trillion microbial cells, and so one could make the claim that we are only 43% human.
  2. If you look at genes rather than cells, the human genome consists of about 20,000 genes. Our bodies house anywhere from 2-20 million microbial genes. This math points to our being at best 1% human at the DNA level.

In light of these numbers, it only makes sense that these little life forms’ impact on our health and well-being may be colossal. But so much of our medicine and health advice ignores (and may even sabotage) the balance of this inner ecosystem, and we wonder why we cannot solve the health crises we face today: obesity, allergies, diabetes, and other autoimmune and chronic diseases that plague us and our loved ones.

Knight cites a graph published in 2002 by the New England Journal of Medicine, which illustrated the incidence of Infectious Diseases as well as Immune Disorders between 1950 and 2000. Over that 50 year period, infectious diseases like Rheumatic fever, Hepatitis A, Measles, Mumps and Tuberculosis plummeted, while the incidence of Multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s Disease, Asthma, and Type 1 diabetes rose higher and higher.

This correlation begs the question: Has our ability to control disease-causing microorganisms, in the form of antibiotics (and possibly vaccines and other medicines) adversely affected our microbiomes, and therefore been the cause of the rise of the chronic diseases over the same period of time? It’s highly possible, and it’s probable that the typical western diet has played a role as well. The more salient question to me is: If our microbiome has been compromised, what can we do about it?

On this Valentine’s Day, I am declaring my love for the microbiome, and all the researchers who are contributing to our understanding of it. More to come from what they are learning, and how we can use their findings to impact our lives for the better.