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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.
Melissa

Photo credit: WikiMedia Commons

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8 Responses to “How much of you is really you?”

  1. IrishHeart says:

    Fascinating!!

    I also have 2 genes for celiac, think I probably have the super taster gene (but acknowledge that I certainly do NOT have the one that makes me run real fast :) )

    I am a huge advocate for celiacs taking probiotics. (I sound like a probiotics pusher sometimes) but honestly, they are essential, especially in the newly diagnosed. They are a huge help to anyone with c.diff. too. Antibiotics wiped out my good gut bacteria and left me sick as dog. (And likely triggered the celiac in me for good.)

    I love your articles and your book. I am trying to regain the strength in my muscles (they took a huge hit) and stop the significant joint/bone pain I suffered from long undiagnosed celiac. It is inspiring and encouraging to read that others have regained their ability to do strenuous exercise once more.

    I try to learn all I can about the human body and autoimmunity so I can understand how to keep it fueled properly. If there is a “gift” of being a celiac–it is learning to eat better and learning how to control stress which promotes inflammation.

    The section on the history of wheat in your book–just fantastic!! It should be required reading for all.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    And I am with you—hooray for cruciferous veggies!! :)

    • Melissa says:

      Irish Heart,

      Thank you for your great thoughts on all this. I totally agree and although I don’t take probiotics, I do believe they are incredibly helpful for people who need them. It’s just important to buy high-quality products. I’m a fan of Nordic Naturals.

      I actually have 2 more posts on this subject swirling around in my head. The next 2 will be short and sweet. One will focus on broccoli and gut bacteria and one will be a test to see how well connected you are to your internal environment.

      Also, thank you SO much for your kind sentiments about the book. I can’t begin to tell you how much I (we, Pete included) appreciate the positive feedback.

      Good luck with your journey to regain your strength. It will happen, just stick to it. One step at a time.

      Melissa

  2. Great post, Melissa! But “a green-eyed, over-grown petri-dish wearing a cute outfit”? That does sound a bit scary, like the movie Independence Day showing that many of the people in our lives are actually aliens. LOL You were the one who first introduced me to the term “microbiome,” but I’ve seen it quite a bit since. We must keep that good and bad bacteria in balance. Thanks for all the info. I like it when you are at your geekiest! :-)

    Shirley

    • Melissa says:

      Shirley,

      Thanks! As always, I appreciate your feedback. Even if you do throw in alien encounters. =)

      I wish my blog was called “Ninja Geek.”

      Melissa

  3. Alisa says:

    Lol – I don’t think any of us follow you for a gluten-free donut!

    Very interesting. I’ve been coming across more on cruciferous veggies and the gut, and it seems to explain why I’ve craved (as in have to have some every day / husband thinks I’m weird) cruciferous veggies my entire life. Broccoli is actually on par with cookies for me. And, my gut is hooped :)

    • Melissa says:

      Alisa,

      I’ve never had a GF donut. But, my daughter made the most amazing looking GF/DF donuts last week. Luckily she was in NY when she made them and I was in Colorado. =)

      The broccoli connection is interesting, and of course, science-based. I have a great research article just waiting to be linked to all this!

      Melissa

  4. Maggie says:

    Oooh, I like Ninja Geek. Maybe start a second blog. This is fascinating info, and I”m going to need to read it a few more times to make sure I fully grasp it! So important. So, I’m wondering why you don’t take probiotics? I thought everyone could benefit from them? Would love to hear your take on it. I am not very good at the fermented foods part. MUST put that on my early 2013 list :) xo

    • Melissa says:

      Maggie,

      Unlike you, starting a second blog is NOT on my agenda. I can barely get 2 posts up per month as it is, but I do like to tackle the behind-the-scenes science of all this. I’m not a huge fermented foods fan either, to be honest. I do like goat kefir and drink that on a fairly regular basis, though. I have GF sourdough bread on my radar though. Thanks for your comment! I always like hearing from you. =)

      Melissa

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Disclaimer: All material on this website is provided for informational and educational use only and should not be used for diagnostic purposes. Consult with your physician regarding any health or medical concerns you may have.
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