microbiome

Meet your microbiome
Every one of us houses trillions of bacterial cells and microorganisms whose DNA is not human DNA. Most of the self that we consider "me" is made up of these tiny creatures, many of whom come from our food, our environment, and the other people and animals we interact with.

Our microbiome is as individual to us as our fingerprint, and today researchers are learning more and more about how the flora and fauna on our skins, in our mouths, and especially in our guts affect not only our health but our happiness. The balance of bacteria living in the large intestine make up the chemical concoctions that give us moods—some figures say the gut produces 90 percent of the serotonin in our bodies.

We can definitely interpret this to mean we should eat more living foods, like fermented dairy and fresh produce, but I think it goes farther than that. I've started to think of my body as a superorganism: not just a "me" but a collection of little beings that I live in interaction with. I not only offer them food, but also sleep and stress and sunshine and comedy specials on Netflix and kisses—a single kiss can transfer 80 trillion bacteria. The people I choose to spend time with have their own individual microbiomes that interact with mine. If their body chemicals are not a good mix for me, I can feel it, smell it, even taste it—at least, if I'm close enough to kiss them.

Our closest people become a part of our microbiome. They become aspects of who we are on a bacterial level. When our pets die or our best friends move away or our lovers break our hearts, we experience not only an emotional sort of grief, but a physical one as well. I imagine the communities of bacteria that would feed every Sunday on the smell of a loved one on a weekly beach date with the dog suddenly starving when that weekly ritual no longer happens. When someone's microbiome is no longer feeding us, our microbiome has to change, find food elsewhere, adjust its ratios, respond to the dip in happy brain chemicals and manage the stress of loss. Perhaps this is partly why grief makes some of us want to eat. Losing someone changes who we are, literally, on a cellular level. We need calories to rebuild ourselves.


Rebuilding is no tragedy, however, but rather the constant work of a microbiome. The beauty of being a superorganism is that there's not just simply a "me" that can be broken and put back together with exactly the same pieces that were there before. Bacteria is dying and being born on the back of your hand right now. Wishing things could be the way they were before creates suffering because that's not our nature. Our nature is constant, microscopic change. Sometimes it's slow, but it's always happening.

Part of the practice of mindfulness is getting really familiar with how our bodies and minds respond to different kinds of stimuli. Meditation is, on one level, a practice of getting quiet enough to honestly feel. There's plenty in the world that we can't control, but perhaps we can take a hand in gardening our own microbiome by considering how we are choosing to nourish ourselves.

How is your body responding to the nourishment you are taking in, not only physically, but also intellectually, socially, or sexually? If you have experienced a loss recently, how are you giving your body a chance to cope with the physical change in your reality? How are you engaged with the fact of yourself as a superorganism whose only constant is change?