First Words

Our microbes are Legion

My friend Angie’s life is crippled by compulsive acts of decontamination.

I was attending a fancy dinner party in someone’s home last year when I spotted something that no one else in the living room saw. The caterers in the kitchen, who were dashing to serve the meal hot, accidentally spilled some chicken breasts onto the floor while pulling a pan from the oven. They hurriedly picked the chicken up with their bare hands and plopped the pieces onto the plates spread across the counter. Minutes later, while our host prayed over the meal, my mind went straight to the gutsiness of those cooks serving up floor bacteria with the chicken cordon bleu. Surely they were operating under the old “five-second rule”—a rule debunked by researchers who have proved that there is no “safe” five-second window that keeps food magically free of bacterial transfer.

I probably would have been more aghast at the indelicate behavior of the caterers had I not been reading Alanna Collen’s book 10% Human: How Your Body’s Microbes Hold the Key to Health and Happiness. Collen writes about our society’s obsession with hygiene and the negative impact this has on the many beneficial microbes our bodies host.

For every cell that makes up our bodies, nine alien cells come along for the ride. Our bodies would never become healthy were it not for the 100 trillion microbes residing in our gut and on the surface of our skin. It turns out that we depend heavily on microbial life for our health and happiness. Microbiota even help influence everyday feelings and decisions by sending signals to our brain through nerves.