Microbes: A Love Story

A few years ago my (former) dentist messed up—jabbing a spinning blade into the inside of my cheek while putting the finishing touches on a filling. Yes, I yelled.

She said to her hygienist (after shoving gauze in my mouth, and sort of apologizing), “Let’s get her set up on antibiotics.”

I said (as best I could around the gauze): “No.” Shaking, stunned, but clear.

“But you know your mouth is full of bacteria, and the risk of infection…” She began to lecture.

I realized I was not afraid of my own bacteria, and that I trusted my immune system. I made her understand that I did not want to take antibiotics. No thank you.

Fairly huge moment for someone who had struggled to rebuild her health for so long, who had been subject to catching “everything going around.” I don’t know when exactly it shifted, but I didn’t mistrust my own body anymore.

Among other issues, I had battled candida overgrowth for a decade or so, and had rebuilt my gut flora by consuming vast quantities of sauerkraut. I did NOT want to wipe out the friendly little beasties who had recently recolonized my body to good effect.

At home, using a natural mouthwash that burned the gouged-out place like blazing heck, I spit blood into the sink. My cheek had already begun to blacken and swell. I spent the evening holding my Triple Warmer* meridian points to return my nervous system to its hard-won state of safety and calm.

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Actual shot of my poor swollen jowl the night of the “incident.” Later my lips turned blue at the corner. It was a good look!

Before bed I whispered to my reflection in the mirror, to my swollen cheek, to my wise cells and crafty microbiome, “Thank you for knowing what to do. Thank you for taking care of me. Thank you for protecting me from infection. I trust you.”

My body responded by healing up tout suite—and further rewarded me by no longer requiring a medication I had begun tapering down.

It might sound wacky to some, but the body responds to our love and care, and I believe that respecting our microbes is critical. I’m now reading I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong, and finding all kinds of fantastic information in its pages.

It is fascinating to learn that only 100 species of bacteria can actually make us sick–the vast majority are either neutral or helpful to us. (Even assisting the immune system! “They educate our immune system, teaching it to tell friend from foe,” Yong writes.)

But there’s still this stigma.

“Microbes are now so commonly associated with dirt and disease that if you show someone the multitudes that live in their mouth, they will probably recoil in disgust,” he writes.

I remember hearing: Your mouth is the dirtiest place on your body! (Apparently the mouth was one of the earliest arenas to undergo bacterial study.)

He later points out that shifting from the viewpoint that “all bacteria must be killed” to “bacteria are our friends and want to help us” is…equally wrong. Bacteria are neutral and have their own agendae. Symbiosis only means “living together,” not necessarily harmonious cooperation.

I get it. There was that tiny bout with MRSA—a naturally occurring bacteria that ordinarily lives under the radar in our nasal tissues. That infection took forever to get gone, and left me with a nickel-sized scar on my leg.

Yong likens our partnership with the microbiome to a relationship that takes work.

Work and love, I say. It can’t hurt. And it might help.

So go ahead. Show your microbes some love.

*governs the adrenals and fight/flight/freeze mechanism

We’re Walking Ecosystems: Notes on Collaboration

Lately I’ve been thinking about collaboration. I envision a world where nations, geographic regions, cities, neighborhoods, and affinity groups find an ease and flow in working together.

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Photo credit Michael Mayer, via Flickr Creative Commons

Maybe it seems pie-in-the-sky, but we have a model for that kind of collaboration. It’s right here, as close as our own skin. Modern science now confirms that the human body is a collaboration in itself.

Some 90 percent of our cells are—get this—not human. They’re bacterial, or fungal, or even viral. Don’t be afraid! They mean us no harm. We’re their habitat. A walking community. A microbiome.

If we keep balance within the community of our cells—I’m talking happy bacteria and fungi here—we generally enjoy good health, and recover from illness more quickly.

This Brainscape article explains it all so well—the ecosystems within us, each with their own unique microorganisms. These wee “microbiota” do all kinds of things for us in exchange for giving them a suitable environment to thrive. They help with digestion, brain activity, and immune function, just for starters.

Most curiously, our mitochondria—an organelle within cells that is responsible for converting digested food into energy—contains DNA that is…not human. “These organelles came from outside of us, down a separate evolutionary path.”

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Mitochondria (red) are organelles found in most cells. They generate a cell’s chemical energy. Credit: NICHD/U. Manor, via Flickr Creative Commons

At the microscopic level, human life depends on a symbiotic relationship.

From the article:

“When Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, the dominant theory soon came to be survival of the fittest: a rat race for domination and survival. But both of these examples — mitochondria and our internal biota — point toward another means by which life thrives and evolves: symbiosis.”

I find that fascinating, and also telling.

Of course, zoom in tighter on the cells of our body—and what are they? Whirling clouds of particles. There’s nothing solid to us.

We’re made of space, basically. Our lives reliant on organisms we have always vilified or at the very least, ignored.

Knowing that, is it possible to see the human community in a different way?