By J. Ron Eaker, M.D.
Many parents joke that sending their children back to school is like thrusting them into a bacterial and viral caldron, and they may not be far from the truth.
You are a walking zoo of microbial diversity! In other words, you are chock-full of viruses, bacteria, fungi, and various other little creatures in every crack and crevice of your body, inside and out. It is estimated that the average human contains somewhere in the realm of 30 trillion cells; however, many scientist project that we carry upwards of 39 trillion microbes. Think about that for a moment. There are more little creepy crawlies living on and inside you than the cells that make you up. That’s a mess of microbes! This gaggle of tiny creatures is collectively known as the human micro-biome, and it is shaping up to be a vital part of our health.
This microbiome, in spite of its massive numbers and vast diversity, literally acts like a hidden organ and is as vital as an ear or a liver but made up of millions upon millions of swarming individual cells, rather than a singular tissue. And just as organs are vital and necessary for our survival, so the microbiome is proving to be a centerpiece for health.
Granted, bacteria and viruses are associated with disease and illness, yet the vast majority of these microorganisms provide both assistance and facilitation of essential, life giving functions. For example, they help in digestion and releasing certain nutrients that would otherwise be inaccessible to us. They generate vitamins and minerals that we can’t generate ourselves. They destroy toxins and other poisons that would otherwise wreak havoc on our body systems. They protect us from disease by crowding out pathogenic bacteria and by killing certain bacteria and viruses with antibacterial chemicals they produce themselves. They act as instructors to our immune system, teaching our white blood cells to distinguish friend from foe. They even affect the development of our nervous system and eventually could influence our behavior.
As Ed Long states in his book, I Contain Multitudes, “ The microbiome contributes to our lives in profound and wide-reaching ways; no corner of our biology is untouched. If we ignore them we are looking at our lives through a keyhole.”
Scientists claim that the microbiome of an individual could replace fingerprints as a specific identifying tool. Each person’s microbial soup is unique; a function of their individual health history, diet, and genetics among other things. There is some commonality with others, as the microbes in your mouth are similar, yet Sally’s mouth microbes are different enough from Sam’s to identify her in a lineup. This variation may explain some of the differences between folks in how they resist disease, process foods, and even their propensity to gain weight.
Nowhere else is this symbiotic relationship more evident than in the realm of women’s health. Two areas, childbirth and vaginal infections, illustrate what exists in and on our bodies and how that can alter our health, and even the health of our children.
It was once thought that babies were born from a sterile environment and had their first contact with the microbial hoards in the maternal birth canal. While it appears that the majority of the newborn’s newly acquired coat of many bacteria does arise from their short journey, a mom’s microbiome may play a role in influencing things during gestation. One cause of preterm birth is an ascending infection from the vaginal canal that weakens amniotic membranes resulting in premature rupture of the protective bag of amniotic fluid. The likelihood of this infection is determined by the balance struck by mom’s protective microbiome. Any alteration of this bacterial free-for-all can result in a preterm delivery which is still the most common cause of infant morbidity and mortality. In other words, a healthy microbiome can be an effective deterrent to pregnancy complications.
There is even evidence that a pregnant woman’s gut microbiome can affect the developing baby. Normal intestinal bacteria supports nutrient absorption, so those much needed vitamins and calories sometimes have bacteria in the stomach as their gatekeepers. A lack of iron and folic acid in mom’s system can a have marked effect on junior’s development. There is even good evidence that breast fed babies suffer from fewer incidences of eczema, allergies, neonatal diarrhea, and type 2 diabetes largely due to the “good” bacteria they get from mom’s microbiome.
Science has literally only scratched the surface in understanding the extent and significance of the microbiome, so don’t fear sending your kids back into the world of viruses, they may actually benefit in the long run.
This article appears in the August 2017 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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