Saturday, December 27, 2014

BEACH HOLIDAY WITH MICROBIOME

Surfers at Manzanillo Bay passing by a tide pool. 
The guests at the little Tronco Bay Inn where we stayed last week were particularly friendly, and a woman from Montreal, a lovely grandmother type, walked up to me and told me to check out a tide pool down the beach. She raved about all the different types of little fish in it. So I went, and found a world in just about a foot of water. I went back again with my daughter's goggles, got down on my belly, and put my face in over and over between breaths.

There were little blue neon fish, a combo purple/orange fish, pearly white ones, transparent ones, and striped ones of both vertical and horizontal varieties. There were also bright orange hermit crabs, starting at the size of an apple seed up to the size of a dime, living in twenty different styles of shells. All this in a space as small as a bathroom.

Not my tidal pool, but similar in size and
unremarkable surface appearance 
Studying the tide pool I was reminded of the Coursera course I'd just completed from the University of Colorado about the gut microbiome, a subject I've been fascinated by for a year now. I've begun to think of the microbes on and in my body as being as beautiful and diverse as the creatures in that tide pool.

I observed the many ways the sea creatures moved about, fed, and interacted. I learned in microbiome class that microbes have similar, diverse habits. There were the perfectly synchronized little schooling fish going this way and that. Timid fish and aggressive ones. Ones that hung together but were spaced quite a ways apart. Ones who darted up and poked others of their own kind and some that poked me. Some fed at the rocks and stayed near the bottom, while others stayed near the surface, feeding on something I couldn't see.

New water constantly washed in and out, and sometimes things got a little turbulent, but the little creatures didn't seem to mind.

Watching them, I thought of the different ecosystems of my body. My lower legs, which have always been dry and scaly and now have much sparser hair than they did when I was young, are my desserts. I don't know what microbes live there, but they must be different from what's on the rest of my body, because mostly I don't have dry skin. I don't use moisturizer, except a little on my face, and I don't use sun screen. I'd rather expose my skin directly to the sun and after a while cover up with clothes and wear a hat -- I believe in getting my vitamin D, and I think sunscreen smothers my microbes! No one else in my family feels that way though. Everyone is always putting on tons of sunscreen. Everyone showers a lot more than me too. I hate washing my microbes down the drain. Seriously! I think they help me stay healthy.

This may seem nuts, but in the middle of the first night of our trip, the air conditioner in the room died and we had to leave the windows and door open to get some air. I hadn't brought bug repellent, and I was being eaten alive not by mosquitoes which I would have feared because of dengue (and now zika) but by little bugs I couldn't see. I felt helpless until I remembered what I read in Moises Velasquez-Manoff's book, An Epidemic of Absence -- that the immune system can be triggered by things like bites. I comforted myself by thinking that my body would cure the bug bites and while it was at it, it might cure other issues I was unaware of. I fell asleep in peace and woke up in the morning with loads of little red dots on my arms and legs. But they eventually healed, and I helped the process along, or so I felt, by bathing in the salt water and sitting in the sun, two things that, I was taught by my mother, cure everything.

It's funny how we get beliefs about germs from our families. My mother had many opinions about microbes, though she didn't call germs that, and she knew by intuition that different parts of the body had different ones (something the American Gut Project  has verified for thousands of volunteers). "Feet," she told me, "are disgusting. Never put on someone else's shoes... And don't kiss people on the lips." (I didn't heed this advice.) But she always kissed our cuts and scrapes -- doesn't every mother?

She did not approve of being licked by dogs, particularly on the face. She did approve of digging in the backyard and playing in dirt and sand. She did not approve of touching surfaces in bathrooms, and when we were young she laid toilet paper on public toilet seats before we sat down. When we were older she told us to squat over those toilets (impossible I always found). We flushed the big, industrial handles, with our feet.

My mother also taught me never to wear underwear to bed because "crotches need to breathe at night." Faces, on the other hand, evidently didn't need to breathe, in her opinion, because she taught me to apply moisturizer at night after washing my face and to wash it off in the morning and reapply. She didn't believe in foundation makeup and neither do I because "pores need to breathe." I wouldn't even wear moisturizer except that after forty-plus years, I'm sure the microbes on my face expect it and may even thrive on it. I don't wash my face as much as my mother taught me though, and when I do I just use a clean, rough cloth to remove the dirt. I don't trust soap.

Many scientists who study the microbiome change their ideas about cleanliness. These days vaginas are being swabbed for good microbes which are then rubbed on babies born by c-section. In fact, vaginas are supposed to be full of beneficial microbes. Makes me wonder if oral sex isn't an adaptive strategy to gain good germs. I wonder the same thing about French kissing.

Today sick people are doing their own fecal transplants, asking their families and healthy neighbors to be donors. This turn of events shows the correct appreciation for the little creatures living in and on us. It's an acknowledgement that we are collections of little worlds like the tide pools on the beach -- beautiful little worlds that we fail to respect at our own peril.

Aside: I don't have an underwater camera, but here's a cool video, not of the tide pool, but of another underwater community:


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