Yesterday morning I looked down and saw a tiny ant crawling along the elbow of my left arm. I felt the urge to flick it away, but not to squash it. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, I thought.
Recently, researchers have discovered that the communities of microbes living in the guts of normal-weight individuals differ significantly from those in the guts of obese individuals. Other researchers are finding evidence to suggest that some common autoimmune diseases (like asthma) may result from decreased early exposure to bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms that, in previous centuries, would have primed our young and immature immune systems, and protected us, later on, from this class of sometimes devastating diseases.
The extensive and inappropriate use of broad-spectrum antibiotics in animals of all kinds, including humans and livestock, is being linked to a myriad of consequences, such as severe secondary infections like C. dificile colitis, against which we might ordinarily be protected by the community of healthy bacteria harbored in the normal gut.
You might say that the bugs are our friends. They are, at the very least, our neighbors.
When my children were young and felt ravaged by the latest cold virus, I would explain that it was helping them to grow their “antibody library” so they would be better protected as they grew. We strengthen the bugs and they strengthen us. We occupy the same space. We inhabit their world, and they inhabit ours. We are not at war.
Why does the obese individual’s gut harbor a different community of bugs? I am guessing that it may have something to do with what we feed those bugs. Feed them food, and the ones that work with us will thrive. Feed them edible, processed, food-like items, and the ones that work with us cannot survive. Other bugs move in to take their place.
Have you ever made a project with papier mache? The recipe, consisting of just flour and water, results in a glue that dries hard and sturdy. You can count on that. Papier mache doesn’t rot because the bugs don’t eat it. I’m not sure what white flour does to the bugs in your gut, but I’m sure it’s not pretty. Being fed bread and water makes me think of prisoners in solitary confinement.
The bugs in our gut are intrinsically related to our health in every way we can imagine, and a great many more than that, I suspect.
Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. They may not be enemies at all.
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