Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Gut Reactions
distributed 6/8/12 - ©2012

Immigrants -- great swarms of outsiders -- are present within our borders. They are nameless, unappreciated, often maligned and even subject to lethal attacks because they are seen as dangerous. And yet we are much healthier and happier because they are here within us. We really can't get along without them.

I'm not talking about people who have crossed national boundaries. I'm talking about bacteria in our bodies -- in our guts and blood and skin. Recent studies show that the massive numbers and variety of bacteria that we each carry around are beneficial. These new findings raise interesting philosophical and religious questions, and have very important implications for some of our most urgent matters of public health.

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A question on the cover of the current Scientific American magazine shows how dramatically research has changed the thinking about the role of these outsiders: "In you body, bacteria outnumber your own cells 10 to 1. Who's in control?"

It is, amazingly enough, a matter of control that goes beyond passive benefits. Miroorganisms that are not part of our own bodies perform essential functions for us, and they interact with us, providing signals that influence bodily functions like digestion and our appetites, and the balance of our immune system. Recent changes in human culture, and the widespread use of antibiotics, are shifting that lively balance, and diminishing the interactive role of these helpful bacteria.

The bacteria in and on our bodies are immigrants. A fetus does not have any of them, but they begin to move in from the moment of birth. The mix of bacteria in our guts, lungs, and skin rapidly increases through contact with other people, other animals, dirt, water and food. Each person develops a unique "microbiome" -- a bodily ecosystem where our own cells and the bacteria live in a dynamic relationship.

The once-clear dividing line between "me" and "other" is much fuzzier than it once was, and so is the demarcation between "human" and "other". When our biology is so profoundly shaped by other entities, we have good reason to adopt the philosophical shift urged by ethicist Larry Rasumussen: "We could learn to speak, for example, not of humanity and nature, but of humans in and as nature. ... We could acknowledge that humans never rise above nature, never transcend it."

I urge you to read up on and ponder this recent research (a few links are at the bottom of the message) because it does shake up our foundational thinking. It reminds us that we are not, and can never be, separate from "the environment". The natural world is not just a pretty amenity that we can choose to protect, or not. Nature is the setting that nurtures and sustains us, that literally gives us life.

But this is more than abstract philosophy. There are important practical considerations and policy implications to this news about our mircobiome. When we realize how thoroughly we depend on our resident bacteria, we are led toward different approaches to medicine and public health. I'll try to avoid too many technical details in two examples.

  1. There's a bacteria, H. pylori, that can thrive in the acidic setting of the human stomach. But if the stomach is getting too acidic, H. pylori produces a protein that signals the stomach to "tone down the flow of acid." (Who's in control, indeed?)

    Not only that, H. pylori controls the function of a stomach hormone related to appetite. When the bacteria is present, appetite decreases after a meal; when it isn't there, you're still hungry after eating. In one study, people without H. pylori gained more weight than those with the bacteria.

    A few generations ago, more than 80% of Americans hosted H. pylori, but now less than 6% of children test positive for it. High doses of antibiotics (often given for ear infections in kids) wipe out the stomach bacteria, and may be a factor in rising childhood obesity. This same effect may be why low levels of antibiotics enhance weight gain in farm animals.

  2. Another microorganism, B. fragilis, is found in 70 to 80% of people, where it influences the mix of immune cells produced by the body, balancing the way our systems react to pathogens without harming our own cells. A researcher wrote, "B. fragilis provides us with a profoundly beneficial effect that our own DNA for some reason doesn't provide. In many ways, it co-opts our immune system -- hijacks it" in ways that keep the system in proper balance.

    When B. fragilis isn't present to help moderate the immune system, the body is more likely to start attacking its own tissues. The researcher "contends that the recent sevenfold to eightfold increase in rates of autoimmune disorders such as Crohn's disease, type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis is related to the decline in beneficial microbes."

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With very good intentions, humans have profoundly changed the way that we live in relation to the microbial world. We're just now realizing some of the harmful realizations of those changes.

We, in the industrial world, have sanitized our surroundings. We tend to have amazingly pure water, we vacuum up dust, wash our clothes and bedding frequently, and spend far less time outdoors than our forebears. Even the shift toward delivering babies by cesarean section -- 30% in the US, and over 60% in urban China -- deprives newborns of an initial exposure to mom's microbiome in the birth canal. We simply don't expose ourselves to the rich biological world that seeds and enhances our mirobiome.

More actively, our modern world has been flooded with antibiotics -- in the medicines that we take, in cleaning products and hand sanitizers, and in the pervasive use of antibiotics in raising livestock. The desire to protect ourselves from disease is wiping out beneficial bacteria in our surroundings and in our bodies.

We have lived from a presumption that there is a clear dividing line between "me" and "nature", and that we'll be better off if we keep nature far away. This new research, though, shows us how thoroughly we depend on our immigrant bacteria. Vexing, dangerous and expensive crises in public health such as obesity and autoimmune disorders may be on the rise because we're not allowing bacteria to provide helpful controls.

God's creation is a marvelously complex setting, with relationships and functions that we've never imagined. We're seeing, once again, how foolish it is to pretend that we know how creation works, and that we can control it to our benefit.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

A few links for more information:
The Scientific American article provided most of the information I used in this Notes. There is an on-line "preview" version for non-subscribers.

A report in Nature magazine discusses the human microbiome in general, and describes findings about three "types" of the bacterial mix in our guts that may be as significant as blood types.

A New York Times article about the microbiome also explores a controversial legal question -- who owns your bacteria?

A longer academic paper, Who are we? Indigenous microbes and the ecology of human diseases, documents how "changes in human ecology result in changes in the microbes that populate our bodies. This, in turn, affects our physiology and ultimately our health." The six principles listed are helpful and interesting.

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