Almost everybody knows what “symbiosis” means – two individuals, or species, living together amicably, sometimes to the benefit of one or the other. In Israel, wolves and hyenas have been found cooperating in the hunt, each learning techniques from the other. In Africa, the Honeyguide bird, as its name implies, actually guides tribesman to honey, changing its cries to indicate the nearness of the prize. Crocodiles are even rumored to sit patiently, mouths wide open, while potential snacks known as Egyptian plover birds make a meal out of the leeches attached to their jaws. Now that’s cooperation! But nobody likes to think of the colonies of tiny living microorganisms existing quite naturally within our own bodies.
The human body harbors a wealth of other living things. Some can be hazardous to our health, and our body’s immune system does its best to annihilate them. But the vast majority of these microorganisms are merely trying to exist, living off us as they provide services in return. One should not be surprised by the fact that countless millions of bacteria, fungi, virus, and yeast exist within we have come to think of as our own personal space. Experts have suggested that, of the 100 trillion cells in our body, only about 1 in 10 are actual human cells. In fact, microbes make up the vast majority of the world’s biomass. Tiny, unseen creatures live on our skin, our mucosa is covered bacteria, fungi, yeast and the like. Scientists who study such things have described our skin as a microscopic zoo and our gut as a veritable rainforest of biological diversity. So, how do we benefit, exactly, from transporting such a variety of hitchhikers?
The bacteria which lives in our gut is arguably the most important to our health and well-being. Science has identified from 300 to 1000 different species of bacteria found in our digestive tract, but in most individual 99% of this microcosm is made up of only 30 to 40 common types. Of this biomass, 99% is anaerobic, meaning that it does not require oxygen to survive. Some aerobic types may be found in the cecum, the pouch of tissue considered to be the begging of the colon, or large intestine, but the vast majority of digestive bacteria is to be found in the main body of the colon. This colony will begin to develop when we are between one and two years of age, when our body has fully developed its intestinal epithelium, or internal intestinal layer, and a mucus lining, which will help protect our body from being affected by our tiny passengers in non-beneficial ways. As we, and our intestinal microbiota, grow, the relationship develops into one of true mutualistic endosymbiosis, meaning that creatures live within our bodies, rather than outside of them as the examples given previously, and they are of as great a benefit to us as we are to them. The bacteria in our gut aids in fermenting dietary fibers into digestible fatty acids, helps in synthesizing vitamins B and K, and aids in metabolizing bile acids and sterols. The most common bacteria, found in the small intestine, is lactobacillus, which helps break down carbs and sugars. A healthy colony of microorganisms in our gut will help to prevent irritable bowel syndrome, normalize bowel movement, and even help freshen our breath by controlling unwanted gas.
Each one of us carries our own distinctive colony of microscopic organisms. The size and diversity of our personal colony can depend on individual diet and lifestyle. Our guts can change as we age, too, and some changes may lead to digestive problems. If such problems develop, or if you want to take a more proactive approach, you may want to consider the use of an over the counter probiotic supplement. Many probiotic supplements are available in a variety of strengths. If you have any concerns about your digestive health, or wish to explore the benefits of probiotic therapy, you may want to consult your doctor. Probiotic supplements are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration as foods, not medicines, but there is evidence that they can be beneficial in treating, or preventing, a number of ailments. These supplements may be taken over the short term to treat specific temporary conditions, or over the long term for continued health benefits. Bifidobacterium is found in some dairy products and can be beneficial in the treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and other conditions.. Saccharomyces boulardii is a yeast found in probiotic formulations which can be used to treat diarrhea and other digestive problems. Probably the most used probiotic is lactobacillus acidophilus. This bacterium belongs to the family of lacto bacteria, which aids in the breakdown of carbs and sugars, has been useful in the treatment of a wide variety of ailments. It may help to lower cholesterol, treat chronic diarrhea, especially those caused by an infection of a virus or parasite. It can help treat and prevent vaginal yeast infections, promote weight loss, and reduce, or even prevent, the symptoms of eczema. Some studies even suggest that it can reduce, or even prevent, the symptoms of the common cold, flu, or allergies. To top it all off, it helps to maintain and improve gut health and may even boost your immune system. What’s not to like?
If you are considering the use of probiotic supplements, you should be aware that they can cause some side effects. These can include upset stomach, diarrhea, gas, bloating, and even an allergic reaction. While these effects usually subside after a dew days of therapy, they may cause some discomfort, or trepidation. Consult your doctor if you have any concerns whatsoever.
I hope that this little bit of education has helped you to learn about, and appreciate, the complex nature of your internal ecosystem. Your body is a remarkable thing, indeed, and it is not you alone that makes it so, but a complex array of living material. If you treat your body, and its passengers, with respect, you will reap the benefits of a perfect détente.