Your Microbiome Controls Your Life

dotted-man-runningAre you in complete control of your life? Take a moment and think about this question. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll find that you’re left with no other choice than to acknowledge that you’re not in complete control of your life. If you were to lose a loved one, the company your works for were to go bankrupt, or you got in a car accident while sitting in the backseat of a friend’s car, that would obviously affect you. None of us are completely immune to the consequences of events like these. We’re all affected, to some extent, by what goes on around us.

I think that’s something pretty much everyone acknowledges. What I don’t think everyone acknowledges though, is that there are things that in some respects play an arguably more important role in shaping our lives than those that have to do with the portion of our environment we observe with our naked eyes – the people around us, stock prices, traffic, and so forth. They may not have such an acute and dramatic effect on us as the unpredictable life events mentioned earlier, but they can exert great power over our actions. As you probably guessed from reading the title of the article, the things – or more specifically organisms – I’m talking about are microbes.

The forces that shape our behavior

A lot of people view the human body as a machine or as a structure that was designed, in its current form, by some divine force. What these people fail to realise is that the human body is actually a product of a long series of evolutionary events. Over time, apparatus that regulate all aspects of how the body functions have been put in place and sculpted by evolutionary forces. These apparatus don’t just regulate the body’s internal temperature, metabolic system, and blood flow, but they also affect things such as appetite, behavior, and cognition.

There’s an evolutionary explanation for why we like sugary foods, why we have a tendency to take it easy and rest when an opportunity to do so present itself, why we are attracted to the types of people we’re attracted to, and why we feel and think the way we do. Nothing is by accident. Our behavior is largely determined by the evolution-produced systems that are in place in our bodies. Obviously, we do have the power to make conscious decisions regarding what we eat, who we spend our time with, and so on; however, what is important to acknowledge is that there are underlying forces that shape and guide our choices. There’s a reason why we make the choices we make.

Not only are there powerful, evolved systems in place inside our own bodies that shape what we do, but there are also powerful machineries inside the cells of other organisms that can affect how we function and behave. The reason why this is the case is that no organism evolves in complete isolation. We’re all part of a larger system in which there is an evolutionary arms race going on. We have co-evolved alongside other organisms, including a mist of microscopic ones.

We live in a microbial world

To someone who is unfamiliar with the scientific literature on the human microbome, the statement that our lives are controlled by bacteria and other microscopic life forms may seem far-fetched; however, to someone who has digged into the science on all of this, it probably doesn’t. Obviously, your microbiome is not the only factor that is responsible for determining what you do and the choices you make; however, it’s definitely among the main forces that shape your actions, perhaps even the main force.

Many microorganisms have evolved ways of manipulating larger organisms like ourselves in such a way that they attain a fitness benefit (i.e., they get better at surviving and reproducing). For example, some microbes are capable of controlling our eating behavior in ways that benefit them in the sense that they steer us towards food that contains nutrients that they can derive energy from. The microbes that colonize our bodies also affect many other aspects of our biology and behavior. Actually, they seem to be involved in pretty much everything that goes on inside us…

Some of the many fascinating things that microbes do:

When we think about it, it’s not really that surprising that microbes have such a profound impact on our lives. After all, they greatly outnumber us. In your intestine, there are a lot more microbes than there are humans on this planet. Each of these tiny microbes all have their own agenda and are capable of producing many different types of compounds, some of which can enter into your bloodstream and travel to various organs in your body.

We’re microbe-carrying vessels

In the absence of microbes, the human body is hollow and unlifelike; its systems working as partial capacity. Unfortunately, many contemporary humans are damaged in this sense. They’re obviously not devoid of microbial houseguests; however, many of the guests they have are not friendly to them. Also they don’t have enough guests to fill all their beds. The result is that they don’t feel that great and are easily perturbed by the unpredictable events of life.

As I see it, many of the health woes that plague the modern man are symptoms of microbiome “deficiencies” and dysfunction. Dysbiosis and lack of microbiota diversity produce many physical manifestations; hence, it is often possible to determine the state of a person’s microbiota simply by looking at him, examining his skin, hair, and oral health, and/or paying attention to his behaviors. If he “glows” and looks fit, then chances are his microbiota is in good shape, whereas if he looks “broken down” and/or is constantly on the lookout for sugary, calorie-dense foods, then chances are he’s suffering on the inside.

One of the main reasons why the microbes that colonize our bodies have such a profound impact on our lives is that they regulate our immune systems. Much of human behavior is affected by immune-related factors. Not only does inflammation – an activation of the immune systems – play a role in pretty much every chronic health disorder known to man, but immune status has also been shown to be an important predictor of behavior. People who are inflamed are typically fatigued and depressed and lack sex drive (13, 14, 15, 16). They are more likely to want to spend their days in bed than people who don’t have a fire burning inside them.

Last words

The thought that our lives are controlled, at least in part, not by us, but rather by some other organisms, can certainly seem a little scary; however, it’s also empowering, in the sense that it opens up a lot of possibilities with regards to how we can change our thoughts, health, and behavior. By manipulating the microbial communities that reside on our bodies, we can essentially change our lives.

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  1. Our microbiome is mind-boggling but it is important not to overstate its power at this stage. It has a huge influence over us on so many levels but it is going to take time to unravel the interactions not only between us as host and our bacteria but between bacteria themselves and between bacteria and fungi and bacteria and viruses within us. Connections between many, many bodily (including brain and nervous system) functions and bacteria have been identified but causality has not yet been shown. What is so exciting for me is the fact that we do have some influence over the state of our microbiome and certainly,as parents, an important window of development and influence is from (or even before) birth to the age of 3. After that, we can still do our best to direct it in the best way we can through diet, stress levels, sleep and exercise. And none of this requires pharmaceuticals. Just behaviour change – which is free but also the most challenging thing for us to manage to achieve. But to me (and through my work at
    ) this is what I am trying to bring about. Not more product consumption but acknowledgement that we need to change our behaviour – around food, around sleep, around exercise, around our priorities, in order to improve our health. And we don’t need a reductionist nutritionist Zuckerberg foundation to do that.

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