Could it be that microbes make the man – or woman?
Indeed – a article published by The Economist says that the human body has only 23,000 genes, while the microbes in our gut represent as many as 3 million non-human genes. This has led scientists to theorize that a human being is not a single organism, but rather a kind of colony of beings. Think of yourself as a superorganism, which is actually the result of trillions of bacteria working in concert with the rest of you.
Many will say that we can’t count bacteria and their genes as an integral part of a human. However, there is much to be said for the superorganism view of ourselves. After all, our gut bacteria are essential to our health and functioning: in fact, many of our nutrients are produced by gut bacteria who are making use of elements of our diet that we would otherwise not digest.
There is also good evidence that these gut bacteria may have affected our evolution. The cooperation of our gut biome with our human body has affected what functions were needed within the body, versus what was provided by gut bacteria. There is even a feedback loop, such that when the human host requires more B2, B12 or folic acid, the gut bacteria can adjust to producing more. Scientists have found that the probiotic elements of the infant digestive tract actually make more folic acid than the adult digestive tract. In addition, research has shown that the guts of people in nutrient deficient areas like Malawi and rural Venezuela actually make more of these critical vitamins that we do in the North American first world.
It goes even farther than this. Disrupted gut bacteria are linked to a host of human degenerative and chronic illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease, asthma, obesity, autism and other intestinal conditions. While the science is not completely clear yet, it appears that our gut bacteria are actually able to contribute to the healthful function of our bodies, in ways that go beyond the gut itself.
What does this mean for healthy living? Probiotics are likely a more important addition to your diet than most people give them credit for. Century-old traditions of making and consuming fermented foods probably have a good basis in solid science, particularly for conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).