Throughout the history of modern man, there have been numerous advances in our understanding of the human body, medicine and approaches to healing. Some of those advances have been good, others not so good. Many can be summarized in this brief history of medicine:
2000 B.C. Here, eat this root
1000 A.D. That root is heathen. Here, say this prayer…
1850 A.D. That prayer is superstition. Here, drink this potion…
1940 A.D. That potion is snake oil. Here, swallow this pill…
1985 A.D. That pill is ineffective. Here, take this antibiotic…
2015 A.D. That antibiotic is dangerous. Here, eat this root…
In many ways, we have come full circle in our approach to treating illnesses – especially for those of us who have an appreciation for holistic healthcare and a bias toward treating the body naturally to maintain balance. One evolving area of scientific research greatly supports this back-to-basics approach to medicine – our expanding understanding of the Human Microbiota.
The human body contains ten microbial cells for every human cell, and accounts for 1 to 2 percent of a person’s body weight. By some estimates, microbes can account for as much as 3 pounds of a person’s weight. Scientists sometimes use ‘microbiota’ to describe the specific microorganisms themselves and ‘microbiome’ to describe all the organisms plus their genetic makeup.
Many advances in scientific methods over the years have given us an increasing visibility and understanding of individual microbes, however the ability to study the ecosystem of the microbiome has taken longer to come about. The reason for this is the way that specimens are cultured within the laboratory. Until recently, most science has been limited to organisms that could be grown in the laboratory, which limits the scale and diversity of the specimens in the ecosystem, and therefore limits what we can find out about the real-life interactions.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Human Microbiome Project was one of the largest advancements in understanding the normal microbiota of the human body. In June of 2012, NIH announced the completion of a reference database identifying at least 10,000 distinct microorganisms and 8 million microbial genes, which means that microbial genes outnumber human genes 360 to 1.
Most importantly, the researchers identified many beneficial microbes, gaining greater insight into how the microbiome operates, how it changes form when it encounters disruptions, and how the overall health of the ecosystem affects the health of the human body. In this area, the results are quite staggering.
Scientists began looking at how microbes in the gut could affect the immune system in the 1990s. The primary site of interaction is the gastrointestinal tract, where intestinal bacteria colonize the lining of the gut and influence certain developmental aspects of the adaptive immune system. We now know that over 70% of the immune system originates with gut health.
Similar studies have been performed on other links between gut health, and overall bodily health. There is evidence that shows that when the gut is healthy, this reflects back to the brain making the person happier. We know that people with issues controlling their blood-sugar level also have a different microbiota composition. There are a whole host of intestinal issues that can be traced back to the microbiome, and sometimes those symptoms can be helped by taking probiotics to improve gut health.
In all of these advances, we are seeing a move towards a branch of science focused on helping achieve balance in the living organisms in our body, rather than focusing on killing bacteria and throwing the body out of balance. This is significant progress.
“The complementary and alternative medicine of today will be the conventional medicine of tomorrow.” – Stephen E. Straus M.D., Director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, NIH January 2000.
We are now in a place where probiotics (derived from the term “for-life”) and holistic healthcare are becoming an important part of people’s health choices. Of course, whenever there is a change in consumer preferences, there are also unscrupulous “snake oil salesmen” selling questionable products with bogus claims, and it is important for the consumer to educate themselves on choosing an effective product.
In other words, awareness of our microbial ecosystem may also help consumers choose better products for a healthier lifestyle. In most cases, these choices will include natural and organic foods, medicines and health products. Which once again brings us back to our starting point: “Here, eat this root.”