Let’s face it, when we think of microorganisms – if we think of them at all – we tend to think of them as the “bad guys” that need to be eliminated. With good reason, too: Less than 100 years ago, many types of infections were severely debilitating, if not a death sentence.
This changed when the first antibiotic, penicillin, was introduced in the the 1940s. With antibiotics, many microbial diseases became easily treatable.
Meantime, industry picked up the “bad bugs” concept and ran with it. Look in any American grocery or drug store, and you’ll find shelves stacked with antibacterial everything. From hand and dish soaps to sanitizers to cleaning products, everything seems to promise to eliminate bacteria and viral germs.
And we buy, thinking a sterilized home base is a key factor in keeping us healthy.
Yet in 2008, the National Institute of Health (NIH) Human Microbiome Project (HMP) staged a coup of sorts. Instead of going down the same rabbit hole, investigating how microbes relate to disease, the HMP began looking at how microbes maintain a state of health in our bodies.
You Are Far Less Human Than You Think
It turns out each of us carries about two pounds of microbes, attached to various parts of our body, mostly in our gut. This is more than just dead weight we each lug around. Our microbiome, science suggests, is better thought of as a vital body organ, essential for understanding health – and for healing what ails us.
Human Microbiome Essentials
To help you learn more about the microbiome and its role in our well-being, here are 7 of our favorite longreads on what the science has shown us thus far:
- Me, Myself, Us (The Economist) gives a good glimpse of our body’s innate ecosystem. Like any ecosystem, balance is key, and if disrupted, consequences will occur.
- Meet Your Microbiome (American Museum of Natural History) will surprise you with evidence from Dr. Martin Blaser’s research on just how much of our body is comprised of microorganisms. Blaser is Director of the Human Microbiome Program, NYU Langone Medical Center.
- How the Western Diet Has Derailed Our Evolution (Nautilus) emphasizes how Americans and those who have Westernized their diets suffer most from what is called “Extinctions Spasm Within.” The key factors related specifically to a Westernized lifestyle include the use of antibiotics, sanitation that limits beneficial microbes, separation from nature/the natural world, and the failure to nourish key microbes with fibrous foods.
- What Your Microbiome Wants for Dinner (Nautilus) expands on the microbiome concepts and explores food choices in the context of creating a healthy microbiome, driving home the point that what we eat, feeds our microbiome.
- How Your Microbiome Controls Your Health (Mercola) provides a nice graphic that illustrates the factors that work against our microbial friends. It also offers suggestions on how to repopulate microbial parties.
- Germs Are Us (New Yorker) poses the question: Where do human genetics fit into all this? Science has long thought of our genetic makeup as our biological destiny. Certainly our own genes influence our health. But there is mounting evidence that our health is affected more powerfully by the bacteria we harbor than by genetic inheritance.
- Last, in Some of My Best Friends Are Germs (NY Times Magazine), Michael Pollan gives up intimate pieces of himself, literally, to further science. On this quest, we follow his oral, skin, and stool samples to the Human Food Project’s American Gut study at the University of Colorado Boulder. This up close and personal look at the bacteria that call Pollan’s body home is intriguing.
Want to participate in the American Gut study yourself? Learn more about how you can learn more about your gut – and contribute to science – here. Any data collected will be included as part of the Earth Microbiome Project, “a systematic attempt to characterize the global microbioal taxonomic and functional diversity for the benefit of the planet and mankind.”
Who knows? If enough people take part in pioneering projects like American Gut, we might not just develop a field guide for the wild invisible frontier. We might actually curate a garden of health in uncharted territory.