With every breath thousands of microbes enter our bodies. When we are inside buildings most of these micro-organisms are attached to tiny dust particles that are captured when entering our lungs. The majority of these micro-organisms are harmless. Our immune system will attack microbes entering our bodies that threaten our health. Some of these microbes, however, may join our microbiome—the “collection of all microbes, such as bacteria, fungi, viruses, and their genes, that naturally live on our bodies and inside us.”
Most of these micro-organisms “protect us against pathogens, help our immune system diversify and develop, and enable us to digest food to produce energy. Some microbes alter environmental chemicals in ways that make them more toxic, while others act as a buffer and make environmental chemicals less toxic.” From our birth our digestive system, skin, and oral and nasal cavities have each been “home to a unique community of microbes.” What we eat and drink, how and where we live, and the medications we take, affect and alter these communities.
Biologists John Cryan and Ted Dinan at the University College Cork in Ireland have confirmed: “It’s hard to overstate how important friendly microbes are to your health. They cover every inch of your skin and are particularly numerous in your colon. We’re talking about pounds of bacteria, tens of trillions of the tiny creatures, but that’s what it takes to protect us from the even greater numbers of microbes that surround us.”
Actually, “Only one percent of your genes are human, and those genes are fairly stable, but your microbial genes—the other 99 percent—are in constant flux. Measured by your genes, you’re a different creature each and every morning.”
These microbes have been described as our “second brain” because of their influence on the whole body. The gut microbes, known as our microbiotica, send messages to the brain and to each other. “If your gut is healthy, there will be a cosmopolitan bustle of microbes with no one species dominating. That means that no one species can exert too much control. A dysbiotic gut, on the other hand, has less diversity. A few domineering microbes can rule the land, calling out orders for specific foods on a regular basis.”
Medical researchers suggest that the increase in asthma and allergies especially among children living in cities is likely due to a lower exposure to diverse microbes in these “cleaner” urban environments. “Children not exposed to harmful bacteria, or conversely, given antibiotics to kill bacteria, do not receive the germ workout required to make antibodies. More specifically, they do not develop T-helper cells, which fight foreign cellular invaders and minimize allergies.
Also, too many adults are “at war with all bacteria. The Soap and Detergent Association reports that “more than three-quarters of liquid soap and more than a quarter of bar soaps on supermarket shelves contain triclosan, an antibiotic that kills most bacteria, both good and bad.”
Might we widen our compassion to embrace the trillions of strangers living in and on our bodies? Might we spend more time in the natural world, welcoming microbes who rise into the air on dust particles from the soil and who catch a ride on water vapor evaporating from the leaves of plants and trees? Might we learn to love these unseen and unheard members of our living-world?
If you pray, you might offer a prayer of gratitude for all these lives enabling your life. If you meditate, you might focus on the thousands of micro-organisms sharing your every breath.
1 Neel Patel, “An Atlas of the Bacteria and Fungi We Breathe Every Day,” Wired, April 30, 2015, https://www.wired.com/2015/04/atlas-bacteria-fungi-breathe-every-day/.
3 Scott C. Anderson with John F. Cryan and Ted Dinan, The Psychobiotic Revolution: Mood, Food, and the New Science of the Gut-Brain Connection (National Geographic, 2017), 45, 21, 57. Italics added.
4 Christopher Wanjek, “War on Bacteria is Wrongheaded,” LiveScience, Mar. 28, 2006,