The Invisible Universe of the Human Microbiome? Not for long. That once uncharted and invisible territory is now being brought to light, as this little tour of our microbiome shows.
The emerging map is becoming a powerful tool (as food and drugs already are) for mindfully modifying the microbiome in ways that enhance our health. We modify our microbiome all the time—unintentionally—by our intake of protein, carbohydrates, fluids, vitamins and minerals, and by using drugs like caffeine, alcohol, sugar, chocolate, cannabis, tobacco, and the like, all of which affect our health and mood, strength and performance. In addition, exercise, environment, and the company we keep (dogs, as I discuss in another post, boost the health of our immune systems) also affect the population of microbes that live symbiotically with us.
The mapping efforts are evident in the marketplace. A couple days ago I was flipping through the pages of the April 2014 Psychology Today and saw ads for a brand of probiotic. Probiotics are a blend of bacteria said to “support digestion and a strong immune system.” The advertising (not to mention its presence in a psychology magazine) suggests that these microbes are psychoactive, that ingesting them will change your mind:
When stress, travel, icky weather and antibiotics bring on the sniffles and intestinal yuckiness, our balance of good and bad bacteria is thrown off….Healthy digestion and a strong immune system keep you feeling your best.
Assuming that probiotics do improve digestion, how much of a stretch is it to call them psychoactive? Not much, if one grants the premise that improving our health improves our mood. (Exercise is also psychoactive, as in the runner’s high.)
Rather conveniently, on the same page as the ad for probiotics there’s an article titled “The Psychobiotic Revolution: it may be possible to relieve anxiety and depression solely by manipulating the gut.” The newly minted term “psychobiotic” refers to those microbes in the gut that affect cognitive function, for better or worse. Elsewhere I have noted that many kinds of diseases, including psychic disorders such as autism, are believed by some researchers to be the result of an unbalanced microbiome.
Each of is an ecosystem, and as our general map of the ecosystem improves, our microbiomes will become yet another aspect of our body that our minds can control. Thus continues the ascent of mind over matter, which I discuss here.
Hat tip: Sarah Conway, for sending me the link to the video.