Who are you?
More broadly, what is a human being?
It’s an old question. Scientists, philosophers, poets, kings, and peasants each have a unique answer.
But Justin Sonnenburg’s take is perhaps the most illuminating — and the most humbling.
Each of us is, he says, is “an elaborate vessel optimized for the growth and spread of our microbial inhabitants.”
Chew on that. I’ve been doing so for months.
I’ve had several opportunities to chat with Sonnenburg over dinner, where we fed our greedy digestive tract populations while discussing how they push and pull on our physical and mental health.
Sonnenburg is a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford. He is also perhaps the world’s leading researcher of the microbiome.
Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg coined the term over a decade ago.
It refers to the 100 trillion microbes that live on our skin, in our hair, under our fingernails, but mostly within us, from the mouth to the esophagus, stomach, and large and small intestines.
This little village of bugs weighs a mere two-three pounds. While generally secreted within us, we do catch sight of it when nature calls — roughly half of fecal material’s mass is made of microbiotic creatures.
These microbes outnumber our human cells — the ones with our unique DNA — 10 to one. Even more impressive, the number of genes they contain outnumbers those in our unique cells roughly 100 to one.
But learning about the microbiome is far more than an exercise in humility — refreshing and useful as that may be.
The healing potential of this little ecosystem is vast.
While human beings all have similar DNA profiles, our microbiomes are vastly different. Dr. David Perlmutter — author of the best-seller Brain Maker, which digs into the complex, fascinating world of the gut-brain system — says about 40 percent of gut microbes are common to every human being.
But the remaining 60 percent is different — sometimes dramatically so.
Sonnenburg wants to create a system in which “microbiota typing” becomes as common in medical treatment as classifying blood type.
Understanding the unique community within a patient, he says, could shed a brilliant light on why that person is sick and what might return him or her to health.
Generally — as with any other ecosystem — the more diversity in the microbiome, the better.
Unfortunately, American and other Western microbiotic populations are becoming increasingly simple, leading to increasing sickness.
This unfortunate simplification is largely due to an increase in:
- Processed foods in the diet, especially processed carbohydrates
- Antibiotics exposure, both from medical treatment and residue in foods
- C-section deliveries — infants who don’t exit via the birth canal are deprived of exposure to vital microorganisms that “seed” the gut.
These changes have brought about a great deal of suffering.
Research suggests that allergies, autoimmune diseases, obesity, Type 1 diabetes, asthma, gluten sensitivity, and even mental illness can all be made better or worse by changing the gut-microbe ecosystem.
There is much, much more to be written about this — and I will!
But I’ll leave you with a therapy that’s both exciting and, well, not for the squeamish.
Fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) involves transplanting — via an enema, nasal tube, or frozen material in a pill — fecal material from a healthy donor to a sick one.
It works wonders for patients infected with Clostridium difficile, usually known as C. diff. This nasty little bug laughs off antibiotic assaults.
It causes severe diarrhea and kills about 14,000 Americans annually.
A landmark study found that FMT cured 91 percent of people with C difficile infection. (1) Antibiotics are typically far less successful.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways, aside from fecal transplants, to foster healthy bugs in our guts. I’ll discuss some of those in future issues of Natural Health Solutions.
In the meantime, remember that you are never really alone. For better or worse, you carry a community wherever you go.
Editor, Natural Health Solutions
1. Rohlke F, Stollman N. Fecal microbiota transplantation in relapsing Clostridium difficile infection. Therapeutic Advances in Gastroenterology. 2012