A relatively new field within microbiology is the study of the human microbiome. While scientists have always known that bacteria, viruses and fungi were present in and on a healthy human body, science is now discovering the many ways that those organisms contribute to the function of the body, particularly the digestive tract, the immune system and the nervous system.
Our microbiome is our individual ecology – a living balance of coexisting creatures – and the state of balance or imbalance in that ecology can create a feeling of health or disease. In the normal human microbiome there are three times as many bacterial cells as human cells. Yes, for our 37 trillion human cells there are 100 trillion bacterial cells. And we are only just beginning to understand why we carry around 2.5 lbs. or 3 pints of microbes scattered throughout the body.
A baby’s incorporation of microbes into her body begins in the womb from the placenta. She is exposed to more microbes as she exits the birth canal, and then she gets another shot of microbes while breastfeeding (there are microbes that are only found on the nipple). She continues to acquire microbes as she meets new people and explores the world.
Antibiotics are medicines that kill bacteria. Prior to the discovery of antibiotics, common infections, such as a case of strep throat or a persistent boil on the skin, were life-threatening. Postpartum womb infections used to be the leading cause of maternal death before the discovery of antibiotics. These drugs were seen as miraculous because they were used to combat diseases that seemed hopeless before.
However, the overuse of antibiotics has caused drug-resistant bacteria and an imbalance in the human biome. If the baby’s mother has been given antibiotics, her microbiome may not contain microbes that used to be common. If the baby is given antibiotics, the baby’s microbiome may be stripped of microbes that manufacture valuable neurotransmitters (nervous system communication molecules) in the digestive tract. As the baby grows she may be exposed to antibiotics in meat (given to promote growth and prevent infection of the animal) that further challenge the balance of her microbiome.
Scientists are finding that microbial imbalances may cause obesity, colitis, colon cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, anxiety and ulcers, among other diseases.
Now there are therapeutic uses of bacteria to rebalance or recolonize the human biome. Probiotics are supplements containing bacteria normally found in the body. Probiotics are commonly used to try and bring the body back into microbial balance. There are even fecal transplants done to normalize bowels that have become overwhelmed with one bacteria, usually clostridium difficile.
For more information you can go to the website of the American Academy of Microbiology and read their FAQ on the human microbiome: academy.asm.org