You'd be surprised who's hitching a ride on your body, says naturopath Jeremy Hill NDAdv, HMAdv, NutAdv
It is not a very well known fact that human beings are merely a sophisticated mode of transport for bugs.
Sure, we have our own delusions of grandeur, believing that we are confidently striving on through life as strong, independent masters of the world. But the truth of the matter is a far more wriggly one - we are massively outnumbered and extremely co-dependent.
Cell for cell, our bodies tend to be outnumbered by bacteria by around one hundred fold, but it's not just bacteria. At times we can pick up fungi, parasites, fleas and even mites who are actually members of the arachnid class, which I do find a little disturbing. Luckily, we don't seem to get populated by spiders and scorpions... although other, less fear-evoking arachnids, ticks, will quietly hitch a ride when they can - yes bushwalkers I'm talking to you.
Bacteria make up by far the greatest number of uninvited guests, both in physical weight and in number of organisms, although the benefits we obtain from their presence more than make up for their overlooking of social protocol (read illegal squatting). We tend to rely heavily upon our populations of bacteria in and on our body for numerous important jobs, which relate to our immune defences, allergy control, inflammation reduction, digestion and absorption, detoxification and blood sugar regulation.
Taking medications such as antibiotics can significantly change the delicate balance of our bacterial occupiers. Broad spectrum antibiotics have the greatest effects, while the more specific narrow spectrum antibiotics affect far fewer strains, although still often not as specifically as we would like, with some of the good guys suffering from the supposedly 'friendly fire'. Antibiotic use has, in fact, been shown to sometimes permanently change the gut ecology and, meanwhile, the rapidly escalating development of antibiotic resistant superbugs continues to be a serious concern.
Nonetheless, the beneficial bacteria that colonise our bowels can often recover reasonably well and fairly quickly from exposure to antibiotics when they are well fed on the 'good bug' buffet of soluble fibre and resistant starches found in fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, seeds and legumes.
Mmmm, fibre. Topping up your bowel bacteria through various supplement forms including capsules, powders and drinks has become very popular these days. It's probably wise to do your utmost to keep your digestive system balanced given that in the course of a typical lifetime you may munch your way through 25 tonnes of food! I tend to take a probiotic supplement every day or so these days. Probiotic supplements typically detail the genus and species (such as lactobacillus acidophilus), although many do not describe the strain of bacteria, which has significant relevance for the particular biological actions of the bacteria. This approach tends to offer less specific therapeutic applicability and may not result in noticeable benefit.
I prefer to only take or recommend bacteria whose strain has been detailed and if I am familiar with its effects shown in research.
Not all hitchhikers are good guys. Another common, but less wanted organism is the fungal organism typically responsible for dandruff, tinea, seborrheic dermatitis and often the crust that can plague the ears, eyebrows and facial skin, particularly either side of the nose, of many people. Pityrosporum oval is a fungus that feeds off the fats contained in skin sebum secretions, creating a flaky rash, which is red and irritated below the flakes. Such rashes often seem to suffer from mistaken identity and are commonly misdiagnosed and thus erroneously treated with steroids for many years with limited success and frequent recurrences. Appropriate antifungal treatment tends to quickly control and usually resolve this embarrassing condition.
Another troublemaker that can slide under the radar and allow everything else to take the blame is the mite named Demodex folliculorum. Symptoms, which include reddened sclera (eye whites) and lid margins, often tend to be blamed on a big night out, or allergies, or not enough sleep, or too much time at the computer. Frequently, the real cause can turn out to be mites, which have infected the eyelash follicles causing a condition known as ocular demodecosis. At less than half a millimetre in length the culprits can be identified by examining infected eyelashes under a microscope, whereupon appropriate treatment can involve adjustment to eye hygiene practices and the routine use of a mite-killing agent for a few months in severe cases.
The hygiene hypothesis, which suggests that being exposed to microbial organisms early in life may impart beneficial effects, particularly to the developing immune system, may have made some people a little less worried about the unseen world of bugs. That may be a good thing. I guess that's up to the bugs.