We're all familiar with the process of inflammation. Whether it's the inflamed skin compliments of a mosquito bite, or the redness of an arthritic joint, this is a normal body reaction — and it even has some protective value, in terms of repairing damaged tissue.
But when inflammation goes on unchecked, it ultimately results in damage to the involved areas and translates into compromised function. And this same process of inflammation actually underlies many of our most feared medical conditions including Alzheimer's disease, diabetes and even cancer.
What we're also now discovering is that inflammation is strongly influenced by the very bacteria that live within us.
With that in mind, scientists have begun exploring how the microbiome — a vast array of microorganisms — varies in people in different places around the world. By doing so, researchers are attempting to see how differences in the composition of gut bacteria may relate to the prevalence of so many of our modern-day health issues.
What’s even more intriguing is that scientists are also now looking at the microbiomes of our ancestors.
Why Researchers Are Focusing On Fossilized Feces
That's right: By studying the fossilized poop of humans from thousands of years ago, researchers are hoping to provide important information about how changes in things like diet have led to differences in the microbiome over time.
In a recent study called Insights from Characterizing Extinct Human Gut Microbiomes, researchers described how by using new technology they can pretty well characterize what types of bacteria were living in the intestines of ancient humans. As the authors explain: “Retrieving human microbiome information from samples left behind by our distant ancestors would provide an ideal approach to understanding the coevolution of humans and microbes.”
Among their findings, the researchers discovered the presence of a unique type of spirochete bacterium that isn't found in the microbiomes of modern-day Americans.
Spirochetes are generally considered to be bacteria that threaten human health. But as it turns out, the type of spirochetes found in the study may actually confer health benefits, including extracting nutrients from fibrous plants. Interestingly, other researchers have found similar bacteria in the microbiomes of two rural populations in Africa and South America.
The authors concluded that there have been fairly dramatic changes in the human microbiome. And this raises the suspicion that these changes may play a role in so many of our modern-day maladies.
How The Human Microbiome Has Changed
According to the study, many of these microbiome changes may be due to our environment: “The modern cosmopolitan transformation, such as the advent of processed foods, antibiotics and other systemic drugs, and various sanitation technologies, has impacted our interaction with microbes,” the study states. “The result is a potential increased risk for autoimmune diseases, among other health-related conditions.”
So I believe an important message has been conveyed from our ancestors in their fossilized poop.
We exist in an intimate relationship with the microscopic organisms within us. Our health is in large part determined by the diversity of the microbes that have shared our evolutionary journey.
Suddenly, we have compromised this mutually beneficial relationship by altering an array of factors — mostly diet — that are dramatically changing the makeup of our microbiomes. And it appears that we’re suffering as a result.
In the future, reinstating the diet of our ancestors could pave the way for us to gain back a more balanced and diverse microbiome — and realize the health benefits that it offers.
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