Coffee House Readings #13:
Follow Your Gut

Trillions of tiny creatures live in your eyes, your ears and inside your gut. They have occupied almost every nook of your body. Follow Your Gut by Rob Knight will introduce you to the tiny inhabitants you share your body with, that you have probably never heard of before. And you really s h o u l d get to know them! Here are some reasons why.

1. You wouldn’t be “you” without them

As we know today, tiny creatures we call “microbes” determine all aspects of our health, and even our personality. Actually, a big part of this “you”, that you so stubbornly believe to be in control of, is not even made of your cells. It is made of microbe cells. The tiny creatures living in what you perceive as “your” body outnumber your actual cells by up to 10 times. And they are not just coming along for the ride. “These little organisms play essential roles in the most fundamental processes of our lives, including digestion, immune responses, and even behavior.”, Knight says. In fact, our inhabitants don’t only influence our physical health, they seem to affect our mental health too. “Microbes may be able to shape our minds as we develop.”, Knight says. At least, this seems to be true for autism, depression and anxiety.

DNA-wise we humans are 99.99 percent identical. But when it comes to our gut microbes we might only share 10 percent with the next person. Microbes are what makes us special, what differentiates us from the next human. Our microbes are the reason why we humans are so different from each other, when it comes to weight, allergies, our immune system, our proneness to anxieties, and probably much much more. “We are only just beginning to map – and to understand – this vast microscopic world.”, Knight says.

So, you definitely should care about your human microbiome. A lot. More than 99% of the genes in your body actually come from your microbes.

2. You can use them for your purposes

Scientists all over the world are currently exploring the tiny world inside of us. One of the biggest projects is the Human Microbiome Project. (The term “human microbiome” refers to the genes of your microbes).

Before we learn how to influence them (like they influence us), we have to find out where exactly they live. There are 5 major habitats that microbes call their home:

  • skin
  • nose and lungs
  • mouth and stomach
  • intestines
  • genitals

Here are some interesting findings on these areas:

1. The microbes living on your left hand are different from the microbes on your right hand. Actually, “the microbes on your hands are very distinct from other people’s, which means that you have a microbial fingerprint.“, as Knight explains.

2. Our environment influences the types of microbes that gather in our nose and lungs.

3. The creature that likes to eat our teeth seems to have evolved along with human agriculture.

4. The microbes in our gut are what Knight calls “the gatekeepers of our metabolism”: they influence what we eat and how many calories and nutrients we derive from it. The gut is “the great mansion” of our body: “It’s good living for microbes: warm, plenty to eat, plenty to drink, and a convenient sewer system.”

5. While the microbes on male genitalia have not been studied yet, we do know some things about vaginal microbial communities. And about the role they play when babies are born. “If they’re delivered vaginally, their microbes look like their mothers’ vaginal communities; if they’re delivered by cesarean, their microbes look like those found on adult skin, a completely different community.” There’s not a lot of research on these differences yet, but it is possible that our birth method impacts health in later life.

3. You are an ecosystem

You might not know this, but for the tiny creatures living in your body, you are the center of the world. As Knight puts it: “Within our own bodies we are drowned out by a chorus of independent (and inter-dependent) life-forms with their own goals and agendas.” This might not sound like good news at first, but look at it as your tiny kingdom. In reality, it is even a pretty vast and diverse one: “Single-celled organisms are more diverse than all of the plants and animals combined.”, Knight says.

There are basically two ways to influence your microbiome: through your environment and through your diet. Your environment has huge effects on your microbes, especially during childhood. But your diet influences your microbiome even later in life. “Diet over a period of a year has one of the largest effects we’ve seen on the gut microbiome.”, Knight says. Changing your diet changes your microbes which changes your body, and your mood.

The microbiome will play a big role in the future of humanity: “With our newfound knowledge, we can view microbes as a web connecting the health of humans, animals, and the environment.” In the years to come, we might see detailed microbial maps of humanity, microbe-focused medicine and personalized health care, custom-made for your distinct human microbiome. But even today, we are constantly changing our microbiomes but, “we are doing this in an essentially arbitrary and undirected manner.”, Knight says.

So, be aware that you are the center of a tiny world. Use your powers for good.

The best Viennese Coffee House to read this book in

One of Vienna’s most traditional Coffee Houses is the Café Westend. It’s been there since 1895. (So, i’m sure there are plenty of microbes there…) If you live in the west of Vienna, chances are that you have stranded there once or a few times, while waiting for your train at Wien Westbahnhof. Also, it’s open until midnight, which is always good news when it comes to Viennese Coffee Houses. Although I’m pretty sure that it will still be there in 2095, make sure to check it out soon.

Café Westend

Café Westend

Picture credits: Verena Ehrnberger

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