Most of us like to think of ourselves "clean" and germ-free, but the truth is that only about 1 in every 10 cells in our bodies are...well...ours! The other nine are made up of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other kinds of organisms. Sounds like something straight out of a Halloween movie (or the recent film "Contagion"), doesn't it? So how do you get rid of these hitchhikers?
Surprisingly, according to recent research, you don't. In fact, it's some of our more "sanitary" behaviors that scientists believe may have disrupted the delicate, natural balance of these creatures, perhaps contributing to the sharp rise in such conditions as autism, asthma, obesity, and a number of autoimmune diseases.
In an interview with Washington Post reporter Ron Stein, University of Colorado researcher Rob Knight places the study of humans' microbial ecosystem as one of the most promising areas of research for treating diseases, perhaps even as important as stem cells research. "Everywhere we look," he says, "microbes seem to be involved."
But how do behaviors like hand washing, the use of antibiotics, changes in diet, and C-section deliveries affect these microbes -- and our health -- in a negative way?
Our accumulation of microbes appears to begin at birth, as babies passing through the birth canal are exposed to -- and take on -- their mother's microbes. These microscopic passengers then begin guiding such things as brain development, immune system function, digestion, and energy storage. Others fight diseases or aid in the development of helpful "bugs" that protect the body from disease.
What's more, scientists are beginning to understand that though everyone has his or her own personal "mix" of these organisms, there appear to be three basic combinations of these of microbes found in humans. The researchers say which of these three collections a person has may one day be as fundamentally important to understanding the way the body works as his or her blood type.
When we interfere with this microbes through the above behaviors, we throw off this delicate balance and interfere with the positive effects of our personal microbe populations. Scientists theorize that by trying to help ourselves be more "clean" (inside and out), we're actually leaving ourselves open to health problems. C-section births stop infants from inheriting their mother's microbes. Antibiotics kill them in the gut and stop their healthful effects. Constant handwashing or the use of cleaning products prevents us from being exposed to microbes that could have benefits once inside the body.
This research is still in its early stages in animal trials, so this doesn't mean that we should all stop washing our hands or should eat foods that aren't safe in an effort to repopulate our systems with these microscopic "friends." But it is something to consider as you reach for the hand sanitizer or make a decision to have a voluntary C-section delivery. The world's a dirty place, for certain. But scientists are beginning to discover that it may be that dirty for a very good reason.
Sources: Rob Stein, Washington Post; U.S. Centers for Disease Control; University of Colorado.
Published On: October 11, 2011