At Home in the Microbiome

July 14, 2020

At Home in the Microbiome

At Home in the Microbiome

The critical event that has dominated the news since March of this year has become a lightning rod for controversy and polarization, evoking many feelings including compassionate concern, fear, anxiety, anger, and confusion. For businesses like ours, based online and offering products that enhance health naturally, opportunity is in the air. Many herbs are said to be antiviral, and this action is well documented for a number of them, as recent posts here about Elderberries and Chaparral show.

We may do well, however, to step back and look at a larger context—beyond seeking protection, advantage, or easy explanations. Readers exploring herbal options for healing might probe a bit more deeply, and consider a more wholistic framework for evaluating the situation.

What’s important for us to understand about viruses in our world? What’s the bigger picture?

Two contrasting scientific approaches to health were highlighted in the work of the 19th century French pioneers Louis Pasteur and Antoine Béchamp. Pasteur is well known for his influential work in developing germ theory, emphasizing the role of microbes as causes of disease. Resulting methods for identifying and combating infectious organisms have led to many beneficial discoveries.

Yet limitations and problems related to the dominance of this theory in medicine are becoming increasingly clear. While many infectious illnesses are far less common, some are rebounding as resistance to antibiotics becomes more widespread. Life expectancy in prosperous countries is longer, yet chronic diseases—many linked to immune dysregulation—are pervasive, often agonizing to live with, and expensive to treat.

Béchamp, a contemporary of Pasteur and a groundbreaking scholar of biology, chemistry, physics, and pharmacy, and a practicing medical doctor, took a different view. He pointed to the fundamental importance of the underlying terrain, meaning the overall state of health, determined by diet, environment, and lifestyle, that bolsters or undermines the body’s response to challenges such as infection. From this perspective, harmful infections are best understood as the result rather than the primary cause of illness.

Germ theory shapes conventional ways of looking at illness, including responses to this year’s episode. There’s an assumption that we’re under attack by microbes that are foreign to our bodies and lurk about, seeking to do harm. The idea of microbes as alien invaders to be avoided at all costs is simply obsolete, as science now recognizes that our bodies teem with innumerable bacteria, viruses, and other organisms, both in health and sickness.

In fact, our health and functioning depend on a balance of internal micro-life, found mostly, but not exclusively, in our guts, as well as our skin, mouth, respiratory tract, and urogenital system (even in blood, long believed to be normally sterile). We have many more bacteria in our bodies than human cells, always, and hundreds of trillions of viruses, likely as many as ten times the number of bacteria.

The microbiome—this highly diverse community of life forms, including fungi, protozoa, and parasites, as well as viruses comprising the virome—is drawing intense attention from researchers. As a review article in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology notes, decades of experimentation with germ-free animals “…has revealed that the microbiota is necessary for normal aging and immune, metabolic, digestive, GI, and nervous system function.” 

The microbiota of healthy people does not exclude critters from families that we think of as real bad actors—the strep clan, the herpes team (CMV, Epstein-Barr, chicken pox, etc.) and many others—yet when our internal environment is in balance, these are evidently not harmful, and may even perform useful roles in our bodies’ ecology. The immensely complex exchanges of signals and molecules among all this micro-life, closely connected with the life of our cells and organs, our immune function and metabolism, and the unfolding of our mortal fate, is a tale without end.

Encouraging beneficial microbial populations, with diet changes including fermented foods and probiotics, for example, is a promising path toward overcoming imbalances related to unhealthy lifestyles, antibiotic treatments, toxins like glyphosate, and other factors. A more diverse microbiome appears to correlate with better health, just as the richer and more stable ecosystems in the visible world are those with higher numbers of species. A century and a half of “standard Western medicine,” devoted largely to killing “enemy” species, might just be at the verge of a transition toward more sustainable methods, if enough of us seek that kind of change.

Kids who grow up with dogs (and the germs they carry) are healthier. Getting our hands in garden soil, rich in microbes, measurably improves our moods. The forest exhales essences that calm and uplift us as we walk through the woods.

We need trees, roots, fruits, seeds, leaves, mushrooms, and flowers, bees, birds, and bugs, creatures great and small, predators and prey, the familiar and visible, and the weirdly uncanny and invisibly tiny, to thrive, all together, and to keep our lovely planet alive for our children and their children.

We’ll never understand it all, but we’ll never stop learning. We are inescapably part of nature, in a world saturated with living beings around us and within us! Living in appreciation of this truth, consciously, gratefully, and fearlessly, is the road to health and sanity.