And how well do you know the you that’s not really you? Or even the you that is you?
For the most part, we’re a highly developed species, but our interoceptive skills aren’t all that great. We’re fairly clueless when it comes to our own bodies.
First things first – the basics.
All living things are made up of cells. Some things, like bacteria, are made up of only one cell. Humans are made up of bazillions of cells and almost every one of those cells contains a complete recipe for making you the unique and quirky person you are. That cellular recipe card is encoded in your DNA, which is that long twisty, twirly, ladder-like molecule you learned about in high school biology. The ingredients for your DNA recipe are organized into 23 pairs of chromosomes, which are organized into genes. We each have about 20,000 genes. I have the gene that codes for green eyes and the one that codes for slightly wavy hair. I also have two genes that code for an increased risk for celiac disease and one that makes me a super taster. You may have the gene that codes for sparkling blue eyes and one that’s the marker for straight hair. Or, you may have hit the jackpot with ACTN3, the “I can run really fast” gene.
That’s us in a genetic nutshell.
Now, on to those one-celled, one-piece-of-DNA bacteria. Bacteria consume stuff (nutrients) from the environment and in some cases, that environmental banquet is us. We have WAY more bacterial cells in our bodies than our own cells – something like 10 times more bacteria cells. Simply put, we have (give or take a few) 100,000 bacteria cells (and genes) in and on us at all times.
Take that one step further and we can conclude that 90% of our cells are from bacteria. Yikes! There’s not much of me that’s really me. I’m just a green-eyed, over-grown petri-dish wearing a cute outfit.
So, we’re just one big tour bus for bacteria. We have some nice passengers and some not-so-nice passengers and it’s important for over-all health to keep this ratio in optimal balance. Our unique buggy environment is called a microbiome and includes all the microbes (and their genetic elements) that have become a part of our internal and external environment. These bacterial genes can profoundly impact the progression of disease – in good ways (protecting us from pathogens), or bad ways (causing infection, inflammation, and disease).
What do good bacteria do?
• Produce enzymes that help us digest, absorb, and assimilate food
• Synthesize vitamin K and other vitamins we can’t make on our own
• Break down carcinogens
• May help metabolize drugs
• Rev up the rate in which intestinal cells regenerate
• Boost immune function and metabolism
• Infants get protective bacteria during birth that help “educate” their immune systems
• Antibiotic use can kill off good bacteria, opening the door to disease
A healthy gut microbiome is akin to a functioning organ, carrying out all kinds of important immune system activities. People with digestive diseases and autoimmune conditions (i.e., celiac, colitis, Crohn’s, IBS, food allergies, environmental sensitivities, etc.) often have funky microbiomes, which can impact energy levels, overall vibrance, immune function, and aging. Researchers are even linking obesity and diabetes to bacterial imbalances.
Scientists at the National Institutes of Health are sequencing the genomes of almost every strain of bacteria we have and are connecting them to the organs they inhabit (nasal-oral-lungs, skin, gastrointestinal, urogenital). This new approach to wellness is called medical ecology. Think of your microbiome as a soil system. Without the proper balance of nutrients and microbes in the soil, your garden won’t grow. The more good bacteria we have, the harder it is for bad cooties to take hold and cause problems.
How do we tend the microbial garden?
• Don’t use broad spectrum antibiotics unless absolutely necessary
• Choose organic produce and hormone/antibiotic-free animal products
• Eat fermented foods (yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, etc.)
• Reduce stress, which can impact intestinal health
• Prebiotics (fibers in whole foods) stimulate the growth of good bacteria
• Avoid processed food, junk food, and sugary drinks
• Talk to your health-care practitioner about taking a probiotic supplement
• Eat cruciferous veggies *
* Next up: quorum sensing, broccoli, horseradish, and a test to measure your interoceptive skills. (I know, I apologize. I just can’t help it.)
I promise you a gluten-free donut if you stick with me. =)
Peace, love, and good bacteria.
Photo credit: WikiMedia Commons