August 1, 2014
Most of us have grown up thinking of ourselves as an independent, autonomous I.
But what if we are really an interdependent, multi-organism we?
The past five years’ explosion of research have revealed the importance of the microbiome, the community of trillions of bacteria that live within our bodies. We’ve learned that far from being able to operate independently, we partner in a symbiotic relationship with these microscopic creatures. They depend on us to eat high-fiber foods to feed them. We depend on them for…well, just about everything.
Microbial bacteria help us to digest our food. They help to regulate our immune system. They affect whether we feel anxious, depressed, foggy, or fatigued. The bacteria in our microbiome perform so many vital functions, we literally could not survive without them.
But if nonhuman creatures are such an integral part of our biological function, what does it mean to be human? Are we really human? Or are we, as I jokingly tell my patients, just “bacteria in a suit”?
What Our Bacteria Can Teach Us
To me, we are neither “just human” nor “just bacteria.” Instead, we are a “super-organism”—not an individual, but a collective. I wonder, sometimes, whether the lessons of the “super-organism” should not apply to our society as well as to our biology. Wouldn’t we all be healthier living in a society that unites rather than divides; a society in which we all recognized our dependence upon one another and saw ourselves not simply as individuals but as part of a larger whole?
Another lesson of the microbiome has applications in many areas of our lives: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In science, we call this emergent properties: what happens when something genuinely new emerges out of a collection of many individual elements.
Feeding Our Kingdom
So what happens if instead of viewing ourselves as one single human, we see ourselves as a zoo, or perhaps as an ecosystem? In this little kingdom that is our body—a kingdom that includes trillions of bacteria—we are the king or queen. As good leaders, how should we care for our subjects? Don’t we want to eat the foods that will support and nourish them? Don’t we want to make sure that they are living in a healthy, peaceful community that supports its host—us? Don’t we want to repay them for all the many tasks they perform for us?
I believe that seeing ourselves this way makes it easier to follow through with healthy choices. Instead of thinking, “What do I want to eat?” we ask, “What do my subjects—my bacteria—want to eat? What does my kingdom need for its benefit?”
After all, a true leader cares first and foremost about his or her people. When we think of those trillions of cells that are depending on us for their nourishment, instead of being drawn to the instant gratification of sweet and starchy foods, we naturally choose healthy fats, high-fiber foods, and other microbiome-friendly items. These are the foods that leave us with a long-term feeling of satiety and the ongoing experience of wellness. Ultimately, taking good care of our “kingdom” is also our healthiest and best choice. It is a true lesson in the ways that giving to others is almost always a gift to ourselves as well.
Lead Your Kingdom Well
The next time you are thinking about what to eat, consider not just your own needs, but those of your “kingdom.” Here are three key things to keep in mind as you nourish your “people”:
Eat like a wise king or queen—and your kingdom will reward your with a healthy weight, a buzzing metabolism, and a terrific level of overall health.