A virus – severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), more commonly referred to simply as the coronavirus – is currently wreaking havoc on our world. Schools and workplaces have shut down, people are urged to stay at home, and hospitals are filling up with sick people. Basically, our entire society is in a state of emergency.
The obvious question that’s at the center of the debate that’s sprung from the crisis is how we can restrain and eventually defeat the virus. Much of the focus in this respect has been on reducing transmission, most notably through social isolation and handwashing, with the purpose of preventing more cases of COVID-19 – the disease associated with the virus. Another major area of interest concerns the development of vaccines and drugs.
On the other hand, virtually no attention has been devoted to the preventative importance of microbiome and immune status. As I see it, this is a gross oversight…
How our modern way of life has compromised our evolved defenses
We’ve dysregulated our immune systems through our modern way of living. This is not a hypothesis or speculation, but rather a scientifically established fact. Consumption of highly processed, species-inappropriate food, widespread use of broad-spectrum antibiotics, exposure to artificial light at night, physical inactivity, an almost complete disconnection from the electrically charged surface of the earth, little exposure to natural microbial biodiversity, infant formula feeding, inadequate sun exposure/vitamin D synthesis… the list goes on. Each and every one of these things can in isolation have pretty devastating effects on our health and well being. When combined, the result is a perfect storm. While once non-existent, such a storm is now not just a reality, but an extremely common phenomenon, in the sense that a combination of all of the aforementioned factors make up the typical lifestyle in many places.
The result of this evolutionary mismatch crisis is not just obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, but also chronic inflammation and immune dysregulation, something that increases risk of infectious disease morbidity and mortality. Basically, it makes us fragile and vulnurable to attack.
Why isn’t this something that’s more widely talked about or addressed?
To say that it hasn’t gotten enough attention is an understatement. It doesn’t appear to be on the mainstream’s radar at all…
The evidence is there (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14). You don’t have to look far and wide to find it either. Yet, the medical establishment doesn’t seem to have picked up on it.
The vital importance of good bugs
The coronavirus crisis has underlined the fact that some tiny biological entities have the potential to make us really sick. This seems to have reignited some of our longstanding fearful and combative/militant attitude towards the things we can’t see – bacteria, viruses, fungi, and the like.
There’s nothing wrong with being somewhat vigiliant when it comes to pathogenic life forms; however, it’s important not to forget that many bugs aren’t out to do us harm. Actually, one might go as far as to say that good bugs represent our most important line of defense against bad ones.
This notion draws nourishment from research showing that our microbiomes regulate our immune systems (15, 16) and are important with respects to our protection against everything from HIV (17, 18) to Clostridium difficile (19) to influenza viruses (20, 21) to Chlamydia trachomatis (22, 23) to herpesvirus (24, 25) to Plasmodium spp. (responsible for causing malaria) (26, 27), to name a couple of common agents of disease. There’s no doubt in my mind that much of the reason why we as a society log so many sick days from things like the common cold and influenza every year is that we’ve historically disregarded the state of our microbial defenses as we go about our lives.
There’s no reason to think that the coronavirus is in a category of its own, of a completely different nature than other agents of its kind. Healthy folks, harboring a supportive microbiota won’t be immune to it, but they’ll most certainly be more resilient. This is supported by the data showing that old and sick people die at a much higher frequency than the rest of the population.
I feel particularly strongly about this issue because I’ve personally suffered greatly at the hands of certain pathogenic organisms. What I’ve come to realise is that this suffering wasn’t solely due to the pathogens per se, but also due to a compromised bodily ability to withstand them.
Note: If you want to read more about the role that microbes play in shaping our immune systems, I recommend that you check out the interview I conducted with world-leading expert on the matter, Dr. Graham Rook.
The larger picture
The point I’m trying to get across with this article is not that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with pathogen avoidance or that infectious illness wouldn’t have been a problem at all if everyone lived in a manner consistent with their evolved biology, but rather that more attention should be devoted to the importance of diet, lifestyle, and microbiome composition in relation to infectious disease resistance. Many people are probably not going to change their habits irrespective of the information they’re given; however, others may react if they’re presented with a strong impetus to do so.
The current situation is obviously particularly dire, and it’s easy to argue that it requires extraordinary measures; however, it’s important to recognize that germs will always be there, ready to jump at us, particularly now, as we’re selecting for pathogens through various evolutionarily unprecedented practises. No amount of hand-sanitizer or social distancing is going to keep us completely safe.
A simplistic approach, solely focused around pathogen avoidance, simply isn’t sustainable. Neither is a strategy concerned largely or solely with the development of new vaccines, drugs, or technology, in part because evolution never stops: germs don’t just put down their arms and capitulate when we throw things at them, rather they evolve.
The current dramatic, pandemic event has the potential to serve as a wake-up call: a call to take note of the evolutionarily determined requirements of our bodies and immune apparatus.
The bottom line
In the modern world, we don’t provide our bodies and immune systems with the inputs they evolved to require to function appropriately. We don’t eat the types of foods we evolved to eat, we don’t move enough, and we’ve messed up our relationship with microbes. As a result, we’ve not only gotten fat, but immunologically compromised. The relatively high incidence of inflammation and infection-related illness in the modern world speaks to this fact (infections of various sorts unquestioningly account for a much greater amount of the current global disease load than commonly believed). By living in a manner more consistent with our naturally selected biology, we would not only select for healthier microbial communities, but increase our ability to withstand pathogens. We wouldn’t become supermen, wholly resistant to illness; however, we’d most certainly become more robust. This would be beneficial not just for the individual, but for our society as a whole, as it would reduce pathogen and disease loads.