Given what we know now about the fact that there are 10 bacterial cells to each human cell in our bodies, this seems like strange behavior indeed. How can you even focus on the germs outside when there are so many germs inside? Yet, germophobes are very common. A recent entertaining blog contrasted “germophile” and “germophobe”, insisting that one was not better than the other.
But should we choose consciously? Is one better than the other? What would “better” mean in this case? Of course from my point of view as a functional medicine physician, “better” means free of illness, and full of vitality and a sense of well-being.
If that is the goal, I think “germophile” wins.
WE SPREAD GERMS INSTINCTIVELY
The thing that I find most relevant to thinking about this question, is how many of our automatic and most treasured behaviors involve maximizing the transfer and spreading of germs. From the first moment of life, which, if we are lucky, involves a short trip down the birth canal, it’s all about getting as many germs as we possibly can. Breast milk is full not only of germs, but of germ “landing docks”, that allow germs to take residence in the baby’s intestine. Breast milk is also full of certain substances the baby cannot digest. They are solely for feeding the bugs that begin to inhabit the baby—letting them go hungry would be a disaster!
Of course that is just the start. For some reason, I was overwhelmingly driven to kiss my babies over and over again. I touched them a lot and I have to say, I didn’t bathe them daily because they just didn’t seem dirty to me.
Many of our other behaviors (kissing in general, shaking hands, touching, hugging) also seem aimed at sampling the environment and each other, and becoming maximally colonized with germs. Babies are notorious at mouthing everything within their reach. Is this really because the mouth is another “sense organ” to them, or is it because they are busily and systematically putting together an extensive germ collection? Read just a bit of the latest science on the gut-brain connection and you will learn that gut bacteria impact brain development and our responses to stress later in life. Even certain parasites are favorable to the brain. I am becoming a bigger and bigger fan of germs. To be honest, I am in awe of what they do for us.
WE RELY ON BACTERIA
DNA in the human cell comprises about 20,000 genes. Each gene is the blueprint for a protein that will then carry out a function within the cell or in another part of the body. However, the human organism requires about 500,000 to a million different proteins to function. Where do they come from? Some have hypothesized that the 20,000 human genes mix and match and combine bits of each other to become half a million different proteins. Others have argued that this is not the case: we get the vast majority of our cellular-level tools from bacteria.
Each bacteria only has a few thousand genes. So the goal, clearly, is to collect as many different bacterial strains as possible as quickly as you can. Babies are especially well-suited for this. They have a “weak” immune system, so as not to kill off germs right away: the germs get the benefit of the doubt. As we get older, we still have a compulsion (or brilliant adaptation) to keep sampling: we touch things, then touch our face or somehow put fingers in the mouth. There could be a way that this helps us cope with what our environment requires of us: detoxification, absorption or manufacture of vitamins, immune system training and performance, connection with other human beings. We know bacteria influence or perform these functions. There could be more: we could be adapting to different threats: savanna vs. forest, tide pools vs. mountaintops. I’m deeply intrigued.
And in turn, we impact our environment bacteriologically in exquisitely specific ways: each finger has its specific bacterial signature. What purpose does that serve?
GUT BIOME DIVERSITY
Now that we are measuring the gut biome (collection of all bacterial DNA within a human being), we know that within the body, about 99 genes are of bacterial origin for each 1 human gene. This is due to the large variety of bacteria we possess. The diversity of bacterial species within the gut is reported as a measure of robust gut health.
When we observe indigenous cultures, we find that they do outrageously “germy” things, like let a carcass fester in the sun before consuming certain animals. All traditional cultures have a typical fermented food. Some will only consume certain foods if they have been fermented. We also notice that their rates of allergies, asthma, autoimmune disease, obesity, diabetes and most cancers are or were lower than ours. We think this is all related to gut biome diversity.
Our laboratory animals may also be too sterile and may not represent how life really means to proceed. Rat cages are routinely sterilized, and their food, if you think about it, is typically entirely processed. Perhaps they represent what it would be like for us if we lived like that.
GUT AND PSYCHOLOGY
The most exciting findings recently are in psychobacteriology (I made that up, I don’t think they have a name yet). Most of our nervous system is in the gut. Most of our immune system is there too. It is where the action is, clearly. Bacteria make substances that are recognized by our nervous system. Researchers have found that bacteria in the gut communicate with our brains using the vagus nerve, that links the intestinal area with the brain. They help us be calm, resourceful and connect better with others. They may control appetite and food choices. In turn, all of the above influences our immune system function.
I’m starting to think that germs make us better people—healthier, more connected with each other, more adaptable, and more relaxed. I think the vast majority of bacteria are helpful, and we should re-examine each one of our assumptions about killing them. There is a minimum of sanitation that prevents important infectious illnesses but by and large, we have gone overboard. So I am a germophile.