It is estimated that there are more than 100 trillion organisms residing in and on each one of us at any given time. In case you were wondering, that's a pretty big number. In fact, if you took the number of stars in the Milky Way and multiplied them by 100, you would still have a much smaller number than the number of critters each of us has residing within the confines of our own bodies.
That means that we carry billions upon billions of microorganisms with us wherever we go. We are literally, from the top of our heads to the tip of our toes, but especially within our gastrointestinal tract, home sweet home to a myriad of tiny life forms. And, since most of these organisms are friendly and beneficial, you could certainly say it meets the definition of a symbiotic relationship.
In fact, from the standpoint of cell count, we are only about 10% pure human -- the rest is bacteria, archaea, fungi in the form of yeasts and viruses. Luckily, for us, because of their size, all these little creatures put together don't take up much space. And, just to be precise, not everyone thinks of viruses as being "alive" and, of course, fungi are neither plant nor animal. But I like to think of them collectively as creatures or critters. All told, we carry maybe a pound or two of these guys in our gut, mostly in the form of bacteria.
So if there is symbiosis, what benefit or benefits do these microbes provide for their human hosts? Well, for starters, 70% of our immune system is found in the digestive tract. These little creatures protect us against infections and food-borne illnesses. They break down and feed on fiber and, in return, they produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) which protect against Leaky Gut Syndrome. This is important for gut health as it prevents toxins from crossing over into the bloodstream where they could cause problems. But we lose this effect when we don't eat enough fiber. So fiber does more than speed the transit of material through our digestive system -- it also provides nourishment for our friendly bacteria, which then protect us from toxins we may have ingested in the process of eating or just living in the modern world.
I find it interesting that the most direct contact we have with the outside world takes place mainly in the colon (aka the bowels) where whatever we consider good enough to eat comes in contact with the microbes responsible for our health. Doesn't it simply make sense for us to eat real food as opposed to junk?
And research shows that the more diversity in the selection of plants in our diet, the better for the microbiota residing in our gut. Recent studies indicate we need to be eating 30 to 40 different plant species in order to reap the biggest benefit. Most of us do well if we ingest 10 to 15 different plants over the course of a week.
But providing plant diversity to the marketplace is difficult and costly. That's why the major food producers have gravitated to corn, soybeans, rice and wheat. These plants are productive, relatively easy to grow, and you can make all kinds of food-like derivatives from them. Besides, these plants are grown primarily for animal feed.
It's simply impossible to guarantee good health on the Standard American Diet. As someone once said, "We have a healthcare system that doesn't consider nutrition and a food production system that doesn't consider our health."
The very best thing we could be doing for our health is summed up by food writer Michael Pollan who says, "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." And by food, he means whole, unprocessed foods as close to the way Nature produced them as possible. Our bodies will thank us and so will those little friends in low places.
Sam Byrnes is a Gentry-area resident and regular contributor to the Eagle Observer. He may be contacted by email at [email protected] Opinions expressed are those of the author.