Our Special Relationship with Ancestral Bacteria
By Dr. Neela Sandal
Human beings have a very special relationship with bacteria. In a fundamental sense, humans wouldn't exist without bacteria. We have co-evolved with bacteria for so long that they are literally a part of every single one of our cells.
There are an enormous amount of bacterial cells living in anyone's body at any time, yet bacteria get a bad rap. We think of them as disease harbingers, but there are an enormous amount of bacteria that help us digest foods, provide unique nutrients, and maintain hormones we could not produce without them. Bacteria helps us cycle toxins as well as fight off infections from other bacteria, fungus, and viruses that would be damaging.
We have an incredibly long and cooperative relationship with specific kinds of bacteria. With any system of adaptation, we have become more finely attuned to each other over time. The bacteria that works well for us, our immune system learns not to fight off. We exist in this balance with bacteria, and we have for millennia. Naturally, bacteria is always changing somewhat, but our beneficial bacteria has less evolutionary pressure because it has a comfortable niche already. The furthermost example of that is mitochondria, which merged with our cell lines so long ago that it's a critical part of how we form and function. Every cell has this bacterial ancestor.
What we've done recently is to shake up this long-standing peaceful cooperation between bacteria and human communities, the co-adapted bacteria and human cells. We've come to fear bacteria so broadly that we have begun to damage our allies. We've begun to sterilize everything – and there's a lot of hyper-sterilization in our culture. We no longer interact with bacteria the way our ancestors did, so what was once a comfortable niche for certain species of bacteria no longer is.
We maintain a bacterial inheritance from our parents, specifically our mothers. When we gestate, pass through the birth canal, interact with our environment, have mother's milk -- all these allow for transmissions of bacteria. In many cases an individual's mother may have lost this opportunity because of hyper-sterilization – excess avoidance of dirt and nature, washing with soaps and anti-bacterial, and the use of antibiotics broadly. Furthermore, caesarian sections rob us of what's an immensely important inoculation seeding of bacteria. We end up with very confused ecologies, and we feel the effects of losing bacterial relationships crafted to the perfect balance over the millennia.
Recovering our needed bacteria takes special techniques and a lot of attention, such as targeted probiotics, restoration of gut nutrients and gut barriers, and many approaches to decreasing inflammation. Yet integrated medicine gives us a framework for looking at our health holistically, including the health of our necessary bacteria so that, over time, we can restore more of the bacterial balance we need for long-term and everyday good health.
It's also worth noting that what's happening in our own systems is analogous to what we're seeing in the larger eco-system. Some species are able to survive the maelstrom of co-existing with current human activities, and some aren't. We are only in the larger ecological beginning to understand the effects of the larger things we do so it's not surprising our inner ecologies are similarly suffering. It will be very difficult for our bacteria to coevolve with our rapid rate of change, so we'll have to do the best we can on individual levels, and as we gain awareness of these things, we have to make cultural changes in our bodies and in our world. Such recovery is foundational to our health.
Dr. Neela Sandal writes that he founded the clinic, "....because I wanted to practice medicine in a more effective and holistic manner. My education and training empowered me to make a huge difference in my clients' health and vitality, but the business-as-usual medical system was keeping me from spending the necessary time and attention with my clients. Through Atma's subscription model, I'm able to form lasting partnerships with my patients." Find out more about him and other Atma practitioners here.