Let's talk about germs and the meaning of life. Believe it or not, they're related.
Your life does have a purpose, or at least your body does, and it is to serve as a roaming nation of microorganisms with a population in the trillions. Microbes outnumber our own cells 10 to 1, and the invisible communities they form are essential for the healthy functioning of the human body—just as our bodies are essential as homes, even neighborhoods, for them.
Understanding how the microbiome changes and how it correlates to health and disease is really going to be one of the challenges of the next several decades in medicine.
Doctors call these microscopic residents microbiota, and their collective genetic information is the microbiome. They are vast. The microbiome of your gastrointestinal tract alone contains 100 times as many genes as you inherited from your parents.
So who are these fellow travelers?
"The human microbiome is composed of bacteria, archaea, viruses, and eukaryotic microbes that reside in and on our bodies," Andrew Shreiner and colleagues wrote in a 2015 article for Current Opinion in Gastroenterology. Essentially, we are swarming with microscopic organisms. In a very real sense, we are partially made of germs.
"There's a microbiome present basically all throughout your body, and they perform very vital tasks for the human body," Dr. Amesh Adalja, infectious disease physician and a senior associate at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security tells HealthyWay.
"They help the immune system mature, they prevent potentially harmful microorganisms from getting a foothold, they synthesize vitamins for us. So you really want to have a healthy and robust microbiome."
Still, as Adalja tells us, "We're kind of in the infancy of microbiome science. We don't know all the influences and how much an individual's microbiome changes."
As researchers uncover more and more facts about the microbes that live within, upon, and around us, traditional models of sanitation may face increased scrutiny. We can't just blast away all the germs to eliminate illness, it seems. We need microbes to survive.
Jerry Kanellos is the CEO of Immuron, a biotech firm that develops microbiome-related interventions. He tells HealthyWay that it's time for a paradigm shift in thinking about and achieving healthy cleanliness.
"We should all reconsider our approaches to sanitation," he says. "Look at the soaps and disinfectants [people] purchase. Most are targeted at bacteria in a very broad-spectrum approach."
In conjunction with overprescription of antibiotics, this scorched-earth policy of sanitation is leading pathogens to evolve resistance to the human antimicrobial arsenal, Kanellos explains.
"We are now seeing the evolution of antibiotic-resistant super-bugs which will be a significant challenge to the medical community now and into the future," he says.
Adalja puts the question of sanitation in even starker terms.
"To be completely a sterile person, without a microbiome, would mean death," Adalja says.
Given this emerging understanding, then, how much should we worry about traditionally espoused means of controlling infection?
The internet is full of facts and figures about the fecal particles on your phone, the germs on your dog's tongue, the danger of the "five-second rule." But could these factoids be washed away by a new understanding of the human body's relationship with microbes?
In other words, are all germs poison, or do some of them make us who we are in some way, pulling essential levers inside the body where the unseen dramas of wellness unfold?
To answer these questions, let's look at some things commonly considered "unsanitary" by the paranoia-loving internet to see how they hold up to the scrutiny of science.
1. Failing to Wash Your Hands
Your environment influences the microbes that live on and within you. You pick them up, sometimes literally, with your hands.
Your microbiome emanates from you when you cough or sneeze or even when you breathe.
"You will pick up things and you will transmit things in the microbiome, not in a pathogenic [aka disease-causing] manner, but people's microbiomes are influenced by these factors," says Adalja.
The trouble is that we don't know how exactly. Not yet. So where does that leave the good old-fashioned practice of washing your hands before every meal?
"Washing your hands is easy, and it's one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of germs," reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That organization continues to recommend frequent handwashing with soap and water before meals, before and after interacting with sick people, and after using the toilet or blowing your nose.
Adalja agrees, but with one important caveat.
"I would avoid using antibiotic-impregnated soaps that are not really necessary," he says. "Soap and water is fine for the vast majority of activities... I would avoid the antibacterial soaps that people are using because that just fosters resistance and really disrupts the microbiome."
So no real change here. Stick to good old-fashioned soap (perhaps a nicely scented, all natural bar, even?) and water. And keep on washing those hands.
2. Sharing the Air
Anyone who's woken up to a partner's morning breath could tell you that we exchange microbes through the act of breathing.
"Any time you exhale, there are going to be microorganisms...in your breath, so in that sense, your microbiome emanates from you when you cough or sneeze or even when you breathe," Adalja says.
We surround ourselves with a cloud of microbes with every breath, and most people carry pathogens even when they're healthy—that's according to the National Institutes of Health in its groundbreaking Human Microbiome Project. So why aren't we always getting each other sick?
The answer could be that cohabitating partners tend to have similar microbiota communities. You share the same environment, you eat the same foods...essentially, your guts match. Isn't that romantic?
"We see that people who cohabitate or spend a lot of time together, they do exchange parts of their microbiome," Adalja says. So go ahead and share a smooch—as long as neither one of you is actively ailing.
3. Owning a Pet
To certain non-pet-owners, the concept of allowing an animal free rein in the house seems, frankly, a bit gross. And it is true that cats tread litter onto surfaces and dogs have potentially pathogenic bacteria on their tongues.
But it's also true that your pets have already changed your microbiome in measurable ways, as you have theirs. We're not saying you should let the cats climb on your dishes, but some research suggests that the diversity of microbes that pets bring to your indoor environment could be beneficial.
"We don't know all the influences and how much an individual's microbiome changes, but clearly, we know that even people who have pets in their house have different microbiomes," Adalja says.
"There's definitely an influence that goes both ways with what you're around and the microbiome of other organisms you might be exposed to, like your dog or your cat, or the people you cohabitate with. That's going to influence your microbiome and vice versa."
Again, we've exhausted our review of the current research before coming to a satisfying conclusion. But that's okay. The quest for knowledge is ongoing. We'll know more soon.
4. Leaving Your Handbag on the Restroom Floor
Maybe you've heard it said that your purse is home to more germs than a toilet seat.
Actually, this factoid is usually misreported. Most of these claims refer to a 2012 study that found "the handles of women's handbags are home to more bacteria than the average toilet flush." (Our italics.) It doesn't help the researchers' credibility that the study was sponsored and promoted by a manufacturer of sanitation products.
Besides, reports the Washington Post, "a toilet seat is a terrible yardstick of germy-ness." Studies have found plenty of fecal bacteria on toilet seats, some of it potentially pathogenic. But, as The New York Times notes, "the danger is minimal unless the germs get into an open cut or are carried by a hand to the mouth, nose or eyes."
This brings us full circle to the sensible and easy practice of washing our hands. And if you're concerned about getting bathroom germs on your purse, maybe hang it from the hook on the stall door instead of throwing it on the floor of the public restroom. That's not great from a hygienic standpoint.
Germs, Health, Self, and Environment
The emerging science of the microbiome could change our assumptions about cleanliness, health, and even the nature of the individual itself. Look, we don't want to sound like an undergraduate burnout fresh from the drum circle, but doesn't this sort of break down the wall between the self and the environment in fascinating ways?
We're finding out more and more that the microbiome is at least, at this point, correlated to certain health states.
Just think. You do not end at the limits of your skin. You are not a body alone. You breathe some essential part of yourself out in little puffs everywhere you go. The other moves in. The self moves out. In a very real sense, not religious or spiritual at all, but physically, you are your environment.
Research on the human body's bacteriological makeup has exploded in recent years. These ideas have made their way to mainstream audiences. Popular authors like Michael Pollan make the profound argument that our bodies wouldn't function if it weren't for these secret worlds of life within us.
We can't wait to see what the researchers come up with next.
In time, we may be able to leverage this astounding state of being into medical interventions for a wide variety of afflictions. Of course, we might not; that's how early science is in its understanding of the human microbiome. We just don't know where it's going.
"Understanding how the microbiome changes and how it correlates to health and disease is really going to be one of the challenges of the next several decades in medicine," Adalja says. "Because we're finding out more and more that the microbiome is at least, at this point, correlated to certain health states and I think eventually what we're trying to do is find out [whether] the microbiome [is] causative of certain disease states, for everything from obesity to autism."