This past summer I read, with much interest and delight, Gut by Giulia Enders, and in preparing for this blog post this 20-minute interview with Giulia showed up in a search.
Enders’ book introduced me to the invisible world of my insides. This Fall, the American Museum of Natural History in NYC further opened up my insides for me to see as a result of the exhibit The Secret World Inside You. Not too long ago I scoped out the exhibit in preparation for a possible visit by the 5th graders at the school where I teach.
By now you probably know that there are trillions and trillions of bacteria living in us and on us. Around the same time I visited the AMNH exhibit, my husband and I were spending evenings watching the six episodes of David Eagleman’s The Brain. Between learning about the bacteria and the brain, at one point during a Brain episode I burst out saying “we are simply aliens with skin covering!” We are not so different in our internal look than the many aliens depicted in sci-fi movies; we simply have an outer look that we are used to while we (or certainly, I) continue to be amazed by our inner conglomeration of micro-beings.
Collectively all those trillions and trillions of bacteria weigh about as much as a human brain, which is three pounds. I teach 3rd graders about water, and there are billions of bacteria living in one tiny drop of water. Billions!
It turns out most of our cells and genes are not “human”. Rather, they are microbial, meaning they are teeny tiny life forms that we cannot see, and often only are aware of when something is out of balance resulting in our not feeling well. As Giulia states in the above interview, our microbes are necessary for digestion and most of them aid our immune system, but when they are out of balance or we harbor any of the five percent that are not good for us, we become aware of their existence.
As a result of the museum exhibit I learned there are eight characteristics of bacteria. Bacteria:
- are small (very!)
- are alive
- consume nutrients
- communicate via chemical signals (and they live in colonies of billions!)
- swap genes between cells, therefore combining and recombining their DNA, which is why they can become resistant to antibiotics
- evolve due to their ability to reproduce and morph their genes
In the early years of an individual’s life the variety of microbes in their body train cells of the immune system to only attack bacteria that are carrying diseases. This is how a human develops immunity, in other words, protection from illnesses and unfriendly bacteria. Autoimmune diseases (such as MS, IBS, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis) occur when a person’s immune system doubles back on itself and attacks its own cells.
As best I understand some of the practical advice that has come out of microbial studies, kids playing in the dirt, petting cats and dogs, and being given the bare minimum of antibiotics, all lead to having a healthier gut micro biome and possibly fewer allergies.
Yes, wash your hands before you eat and after going to the bathroom. But perhaps stop using those microbial foams that dry out your skin and vanquish contact with bacteria that are good for you!