The Secret Life of Your Microbiome

by: Sara on 09/05/2017

Today's blog post is from Susan L. Prescott and Alan C. Logan the coauthors of the just released book The Secret Life of Your Microbiome: Why Nature and Biodiversity are Essential to Health and Happiness.

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe" John Muir, Naturalist, 1869

Most humans care deeply about health, community and the environment in which we live. We are concerned about the welfare of our children, both today and into the future. We care about nature and nutritional sustenance. We stand in awe of biodiversity, at least insofar as it is represented by visible, large-scales aspects such as the Giant Sequoia and Panda. But these big concerns are often compartmentalized, and can seem too large for any one of us to influence. Yet it is all connected. There is a direct line between personal and planetary health.  And it’s a two-way street. Our choices impact environmental health and biodiversity, but our environment also has a profound effect on the health and biodiversity of our personal ecosystems - the trillions of microbes which comprise more than half the cells in our body – our ‘microbiome’.

Technically speaking, the term ‘microbiome’ refers to microorganisms (and their genetic material) operating within a

secret life_microbes

Image Credit: Susan Prescott

specific ecological niche. In our personal ecosystems, the balance and composition of the microbes can have a fundamentally influence every aspect of our physical and mental health. At the same time, our microbes are a product of our societal ecosystems and how we live - not only our stressors but also our positive emotions as well.

Seemingly overnight, the term microbiome has emerged from obscurity to the pages of leading scientific journals and the headlines of media outlets. The quality and quantity of scientific endeavors directed at the microbiome is such that even scientists are finding it difficult to keep up; the total body of knowledge concerning how microbes might contribute to (or compromise) human health and wellbeing is immense and ever growing.

This zeitgeist belies the far, far longer storied history of microbes as the oldest form of life on Earth. They have adapted to everynew condition, every new habitat, across millennia, partnering the evolution of every other living creature on this planet. Truly old friends, who for most of modern history have seen as largely as adversaries. But below the dominant view of microbes as a threat, there are now decades of research connecting microbes, including the friendly sort, with the promotion of human health and wellbeing.

Even without contemporary advances in microbiome analysis, early experts such as Rene Dubos in the 1960’s, were able to demonstrate the interconnectivity of all life through experiments with microbiota - the incredible ways in which nature is connected on every level spanning from the ‘macro’ to the ‘micro’ scales. Science has been able to demonstrate what intuition has long told us.

In our book, The Secret Life of Your Microbiome - Why Nature and Biodiversity are Essential to Health and Happiness - the key is in the subtitle. All life, including the unseen, is interconnected, and human health and well-being is only as good as the health of the total environment. We take our readers on a journey from the dawn of early discoveries, across the 20th century illuminating the thoughtful words of early experts, as we reflect them off more contemporary discoveries concerning the natural environment. So many of their forewarnings are being realized. More than ever we must heed their call to action.

Nature deficit

Image Credit: Susan Prescott

Disturbances to the microbiome - dysbiosis - are being connected to virtually every chronic non-communicable disease (ranging from allergy, obesity, diabetes heart disease and even mental disorder). Most of these inflammatory conditions are mediated by effects on the immune system which is altered by dysbiosis. Whether this is cause, consequence or both, is an open question. Either way, lots of evidence indicates that microbes are an essential part of the total economy of nature - a very functional part. Although scientists may never find the elusive "ideal" healthy microbiome, they are swimming upstream to determine what aspects of modernity are playing a role in dysbiosis. In fact, the factors driving personal dysbiosis are ultimately the samefactors that are driving planetary dysbiosis (which translates from its Greek root to mean “life in distress” or “difficult way of life”) on every level.

Galloping consumerism, excessive consumption of ultra-processed food, and an indoor device culture are driving us away progressively from nature and each other -  all adding to stress, anxiety, sleep disturbance, alcohol and drug dependence, isolation and depression. All these factors interact with our microbiome and our immune health, promoting dysbiosis and inflammation. Paradoxically in a culture “where there is never enough” we are losing much of what is important for health and happiness.

Environmental erosion and “nature deficit” are progressively eroding positive emotions such as empathy, compassion and optimism, which in turn undermine immune resilience. In essence, a spiral of self-destructive interactions manifest as autoimmunity and cancer - literally in our health and symbolically in broken systems, environmental degradation and social inequality. Essentially, the ways in which we, as humans, are disconnected from the systems of nature (upon which all life, including our own is dependant) is illuminated by using the microbiome in its actual science, and as a metaphor for our ongoing global dysbiosis. In a world with increasing socioeconomic disparities, dysbiosis is an overlapping reality for the most disadvantaged in western society - both in its microbial sense and its broad meaning.

The two of us have been quietly observing and actively researching this topic for almost twenty years. Too often we've seen that

dysbiotic drift

Image credit: Susan Prescott

there are evidently no boundaries for headlines through which consumers can enter a fantastical world where bacterial pills melt off the pounds and provide a microbial means to 'get your mind right'. While we don't discount the potential value of commercially-cultivated microbes for various aspects of health and well-being, and appreciate that safe nutritional products are available to those who wish to use them, the scientific ‘horse’ is way behind the product application ‘buggy’. Especially for mental health and obesity. In Secret Life we discuss many aspects the modern diet (notably, its ultra-processed, additive-rich content) nutrition and microbial application, but pay far more attention to the aspects of the microbiome revolution that aren't sold or commoditized...particularly experience with, and connection to, nature.

As we explain in Secret Life, the discoveries themselves are all interrelated and implicate many commercial drivers of dysbiosis. In other words, while one scientist is working to patent a probiotic to 'target the microbiome', another in behavioral/marketing science is perfecting radio jingles and marketing slogans to direct you and your children to high-sugar/high refined-fat diet – which, if successful, will be also 'target the microbiome' (in a completely different direction).

The good news is that the microbiome has united the various branches of science and medicine; strangely, it is now the unseen microbial aspects of nature (more so than the Giant Sequoias or Pandas) that are "speaking up" for social justice and the importance of contact with (and awareness of) biodiversity as the sustenance of life. Understanding these interconnections also reveals the direction we must take to find the solutions.

Much depends on seeing ourselves as part of the ecosystems, and part of the solutions. We can take lessons from the natural world, to replicate symbiotic mutually reinforcing relationships. Microbial solutions already reveal the value of restoring ecosystems in both human health and in breaking down man-made waste, plastics, and pollutants – but any such solutions will only be meaningful and sustainable if societal values promote ecosystems that thrive on mutually advantageous relationships, rather than mutually destructive ones.

We leverage the microbiome science not to sell a probiotic that will give you 6-pack abs and a promotion to the corner office; On the contrary, Secret Life is about the systemic dysbiosis which probiotics are purported to fix. Ultimately, a normative shift towards more mutualistic values is the only way we will to overcome the erosion of our social fabric, the natural environment and our health. The answers lie within all of us. Literally, and in every sense.

Susan L. Prescott and Alan C. Logan



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