7 Your Microbiome: Friends with Benefits (What are you? A human being, of course, but what is a human being?)

Your Microbiome: Friends with Benefits
by GREGG HAKE on MAY 30, 2012
What are you? A human being, of course, but what is a human being?
Let’s leave out the debate over the invisible, intangible aspect of
you for the moment, that is, the “being” and look simply at the
“human” part of the equation, your physical body. What are you,
physically speaking?

Biology textbooks tell us that we have a human body. That body is the
entire structure of a human organism, and it consists of roughly 100
trillion cells (in an adult body) organized biologically into tissues
and organ systems. Most people probably operate under the belief that
their bodies are complete in and of themselves, that their organ
systems are capable of regulating their internal workings, assuring
adequate digestion, energy production, detoxification, oxygenation and
so on.

Moreover, most people, particularly in the Western world, would think
of microbes in the body as being pathogens, or dangerous foreign
invaders. The demand for industrial and institutional cleaning
products in the U.S. is forecast to hit $10,000,000,000 in 2012,
largely due to fears about widespread concern over disease
transmission and frequently tainted food supplies.

Put simply, we as a society have become so terrified of bad microbes
that we’re no longer making rational choices at the checkout
counter. For example, consumer demand for hand cleansers formulated
with antibacterial agents such as ethanol, isopropanol or triclosan
has grown tremendously over the last few years, despite scientific
findings that antibacterial products do not offer greater protection
from microbial threats than conventional products, that is, plain old

Widely held beliefs, however, do not always prove to be true. Recent
research into the human biome has yielded a number of discoveries that
threaten to change the way we look at ourselves and the world around
us. While working under the belief that we – and our masterfully
arranged 100 trillion cells – had everything we needed to maintain
health, scientists often overlooked the wide variety of the more
benign microbes and tended to only study the more apparently harmful

A new class of powerful medicine, antibiotics, drove this mindset deep
into the science of medicine and many other fields of related
scientific inquiry. As Foster and Raoult noted in their 1974 study
“Early descriptions of antibiosis“:

The ‘discovery’ of penicillin by Fleming in 1928 and its dramatic
production, urged on by the necessities of war, heralded a new era of
therapeutics. It has changed the pattern of disease, the prognosis of
infections, the expectation of life, indeed, it has changed the whole
human ecology.

Exactly how antibiotic use is changing the human ecology and the way
the body works to regulate itself, some 100 years after it was given a
warm embrace by the medical community, is just starting to be
understood. It turns out that the supposedly benign microbes, which
incidentally compose an overwhelming majority of the body’s
microbiome, are much more important to the body’s regulatory
mechanisms and basic physiological processes than previously imagined.

Research over the last 5 years in particular is pointing to the fact
underestimating the value and importance of our body’s ecosystem and
upsetting the balancing act performed by our microbiome and our immune
system (if the two can really be seen as separate) may just be one of
those roads to hell paved with good intentions.

It is widely known that our bodies are roughly 70% water. A lesser
known fact, because it was only recently discovered, is that bacterial
cells outnumber the body’s cells 10 to 1. You are mostly water, but
you are also mostly made of foreign microbes. These bacteria and other
microorganisms do not hurt us, in fact, they are essential to just
about every one of our body’s functions. Antibiotics, a term which
means “against life,” are undoubtedly life savers when used properly,
but scientists have yet to confirm if we are using them properly at
this point.

The question hanging in the air is whether or not we are upsetting
balances in this broader concept of what the human body is that will
be difficult to restore, or to put it in more specific terms, if the
approach we’re taking is not one of the root causes of many of our
modern epidemics (e.g. obesity, cancer, autoimmunity, mental illness,

Time will tell.