So You Think You’re Human?
Updated: Oct 8, 2019
by Bronwyn Kohler
You’re human. The manifestation of a uniquely Homo sapiens genetic blueprint in flesh. You’re an intelligent, autonomous being in charge of your own destiny. Correct?
What if you’re wrong?
What if you are not an autonomous being at all? What if you are not even entirely human? What if you are actually no more than a vessel, housing and doing the bidding of an empire of foreign creatures. If that sounds like a crackpot conspiracy theory, suspend your skepticism for a moment and read on. Science has confirmed that this episode of X-files is real.
Your body is scarcely human at all, by numbers. Your human cells are outnumbered 10 to one by cells without a shred of human DNA. In fact, your human genes are outflanked 100 to one by the genes of non-human organisms. If your body was a democracy, the human part of you would never win an election. So who are these creatures that have commandeered your ship?
Germs. 90% of the cells contained in your body are germs. Bear that in mind next time you slather yourself in hand sanitizer. Every surface of your body is host to a population of microscopic organisms, or microbes, that interact with each other like a complex, diverse society. You are merely the landscape beneath a vast microbial nation. There are over 100 trillion of them, 100 fold more on and in your body alone than there are people on Earth. Although the vast majority live in your gut, many billions inhabit the rural outreaches of your skin, mouth, nose and privates. Even a woman’s breast milk ducts and womb have their own outback microbial settlements, and don’t get me started on a man’s beard. Luckily, these microbes are very, very tiny. Taken together, they weigh roughly as much as your liver. Scientists have named them collectively your ‘microbiome’: the sum of all the microorganisms that call your body home, including bacteria, fungi, yeasts and viruses.
Considering that we spent the better part of the past century learning how to obliterate germs on and in our bodies and environment, this news may come as a bit of a shock. What do these microbes do to us? Do they make us sick? Should we be bathing in bleach every night to get rid of them? Or are they friends, helping us out as they silently hitch a ride?
Thinking of your microbiome as a 'society' may help us answer this. Just like the people of New York City, many different kinds of microbes occupy your body, each with its own habits and ‘culture’. Some are hard-working, honest citizens, who contribute actively to the good of the community, welcome other peaceful creeds and races, and pay their taxes. Those are your beneficial microbes, which collaborate with each other to create resilient, healthy communities that provide services to their human hosts in exchange for a comfortable, stable environment in which to live and reproduce. Those services include supporting a strong and well regulated immune system, providing and facilitating the absorption of nutrients, safeguarding your membranes (particularly in your gut) and deterring harmful invaders. While these good citizens welcome other beneficial microbes from different strains and species, they don’t tolerate bad neighbors, and deter them with not-so-subtle chemical messages of their malcontent. They band together to keep the bad elements out of the neighborhood, and lend law enforcement, your immune system, their full support.
Unfortunately, in every neighborhood, there are also those that walk the line between good and bad. When the good guys are winning, these guys keep their head low, and tow the line. As soon as they see an opportunity to enrich themselves however, they throw away their morals and seize it without reserve. Those are the neighbors that sell drugs to your kids, deface the local park and don’t pick up their litter. In your microbiome, they are called pathobionts. As soon as you give them an opening, they can send your microbial society to the dogs.
Once the neighborhood starts getting seedier, more malign elements start creeping in, and the good guys start moving out. ‘Bad microbes’ harass the good citizens with their own rude chemical messages. Fragmented groups of good guys are less able to mount enough chemical resistance to keep them out, and before you know it, the neighborhood is a dangerous place to be. Everyone’s got a weapon and they’re not afraid to use it. Corruption steals all the best resources before they can get to where they’re needed. Nobody maintains the infrastructure so the buildings start springing leaks and falling apart. Worst of all, brutal gangs start up, and welcome new members. Even when the authorities send in the military, armed with antibiotics, they hardly make a dent in the gangster state that is now entrenched.
Bad microbes can wreak havoc anywhere in your body, but they are most notorious in your gut. They can wreck your gut lining, causing a ‘leaky gut’ which allows toxic elements to enter your bloodstream and cause inflammation and damage all over your body. They can become antibiotic resistant, like deadly Clostridium difficile, so that every attack with antibiotics only wipes out more of the good guys and strengthens the hand of the enemies. They can hobble your immune system, leaving you vulnerable to ever more attacks, and even cause it to turn on itself. Over time, the devastation they cause manifests as chronic disease, autoimmunity, obesity and depression. Even your cognitive function and emotional health can be compromised by a compromised microbiome. Science reveals daily new ways in which a deranged microbiome can harm you, but one thing is clear: bad microbes mean bad health.
So what is your role in all of this (I am speaking to your human cells now)? Well, I see you as the government of your country of microbes. You are responsible for the safety of your citizens, maintaining the rule of law, and ensuring that their taxes are rewarded with meaningful goods and services. That means you should try hard not to wipe out innocent bystanders with hand sanitisers, preservatives, pesticides and chemical additives that indiscriminately annihilate microbes in and on your body. As long as you are not performing surgery, you can keep the bad guys at bay with ordinary soap and water without taking out half the neighborhood. Evidence suggests that overuse of hand sanitisers may actually weaken your immunity, not strengthen it. If nothing else wants to eat your preservative-laced food for months at a time, maybe you shouldn’t either. Some food additives inhibit microbes indiscriminately, and they don't stop working once you've eaten them. High intake of processed foods has a devastating effect on your happy microbial communities.
When bad microbes do get into your gut and and start trashing the place, treat yourself with targeted interventions that support your immune system’s efforts to eliminate them first. Don’t carpet bomb your cities with antibiotics until you absolutely have to. If you do, your civilian casualties will often vastly outnumber the enemies you kill, and leave you sicker than before. With indiscriminate antibiotic use, you could even open yourself up to dangerous antibiotic-resistant infections like C. difficile.
Finally, repay your microbes for their taxes by feeding them the foods they like, and keep their environment clean and well maintained. That means ditching junk and processed foods, cutting down on sugar, drinking enough water, eating loads of vegetables, legumes and fruit and getting some exercise. Plant foods are high in fibre, which you can't digest but your gut microbes can. A plant-rich diet, and the fibre that comes with it, keep your microbial communities strong and resilient, and protect you from a host of diseases including obesity, heart disease, diabetes and gut conditions.
Govern well, and you will have a successful country of microbes that provides most of what you need for health, including a positive state of mind, the full use of your intelligence and capabilities, and access to the nutrients your body needs to build new tissues and maintain itself. Govern poorly, and you will end up with a slum, where even the most basic functions are a struggle, things fall apart, and your health gets poorer by the day. All aspects of your health will deteriorate, your mind and abilities will be compromised, and you will struggle to stem the tide of failing systems that your body no longer has the tools to repair.
It's time for human beings to stop seeing themselves as merely humans, separate from all the other organisms of the world, and recognize that we are in fact one great collaboration: a walking, talking society on legs. Perhaps if we could see that each of us is the emperor of our own microscopic society, responsible for the welfare of 100 trillion tiny lives that are devoted to our service, we might govern ourselves and our health a little more conscientiously.