Kristen Sparrow • April 23, 2021
Dr. Graham Rook, an emeritus professor of medical microbiology at University College London, likens the immune system to a computer. He says that the microbes we encounter in daily life — on other people and in our spaces — are the data that the immune system relies on to program and regulate its operations.
While the gut microbiome has thus far garnered the most scientific attention, humans have other reservoirs of microbes — on our skin, in our lungs, maybe even in our brains — that also seem to perform crucial jobs, from strengthening tissues to influencing the function of our heart and hormones. While scientists don’t know exactly how these tiny communities form and work, or how much people’s environmental exposures influence them, researchers know enough to recognize that indiscriminately killing microbes could have irreversible consequences.
The picture that’s emerging is that the human body, much like a rain forest, is home to a vast and symbiotic ecosystem of organisms. When that ecosystem is disrupted, there are consequences.
“We can look at many of the things we’re doing now to prevent infection and see how this could have major effects,” says Dr. Finlay.
Topping the list of concerns, he and others say, is our injudicious use of powerful antibiotics — drugs that can kill some pathogens but can also wipe out healthy bacteria in the body.
When he educates people about the importance of intermingling with microbes, Dr. Finlay likes to point out that our bodies contain at least as many bacterial cells as human cells. He also emphasizes that, before the pandemic, only one of the top 10 causes of death in America — influenza — was attributable to an infectious disease that someone could “catch.” Nearly all the rest, such as heart disease and stroke, cancer, brain disease and diabetes, are associated with poor microbiome health or dysfunction.
“You can’t change your genes, but you can change your microbes,” he says. “They’re our friends.”
Longtime reader of the blog may remember this blog post from back in the day.