Updated: Nov 16, 2021
LifeHakx – Be a Good Host
By Eva Wisenbeck 14/03/2021
Listen to the podcast here.
See the video interview here.
It is time we start changing our view of viruses!
Both the inside and the outside of the human body is crammed with millions of colonies of microbes and these are of major importance to our general wellbeing and also our immune health.
Biologists estimate that 380 trillion viruses (!) are living on and inside your body right now—10 times the number of bacteria. Some can cause illness, but many simply coexist with you.
The virome has been mapped for about 10 years, and the deeper we investigate, the more the virome looks like a partnership that can influence our daily lives positively as well as negatively.
Our viromes begin to accumulate when we are born. Studies reveal a high diversity of viruses in the infant gut shortly after birth, suggesting that they come from the babies' mothers, during birth and some ingested from breast milk. Some of these viruses decline in number as infants grow to weeks or months old; others enter their bodies from the air, water, food and other people. These viruses grow in number and diversity, infecting cells where they will persist for years. Infant viromes are unstable, whereas adult viromes are relatively stable. Anelloviruses, a family of 200 different species, are present in almost everyone as we get older. This mirrors what we observe for bacteria as well.
Viruses are an inescapable part of life, especially in a global viral pandemic. Yet ask a roomful of scientists if viruses are alive and you’ll get a very mixed response.
The truth is, we don’t fully understand viruses, and we’re still trying to understand life. Some properties of living things are absent from viruses, such as cellular structure, metabolism the chemical reactions that take place in cells and homeostasis keeping a stable internal environment.
This sets viruses apart from life as we currently define it. But there are also properties that viruses share with life. They evolve, for instance, and by infecting a host cell they multiply using the same cellular machinery.
Many viruses can cut the DNA of infected cells and intertwine their own genetic material so that they are copied along with the DNA of their host whenever the cell divides. This process is called lysogeny and it can be contrasted with the more destructive lytic strategy of viruses where they multiply in great numbers within a cell, only to burst the cell open and spread out to infect other cells.
There is an undeniable genetic and physiological connection between viruses and the organisms they infect. The discovery of giant viruses further blurs the distinction. These viruses can have as many genes as bacteria, some of which code for functions previously thought to be unique to cellular organisms.
Does this new information lead to confusion or clarity?
If we approach this puzzle correctly, we may find that we are focusing on the wrong question. Is “life” a box-like category that we can place things in as we discover them, or is it something far more mysterious? Are viruses alive? Perhaps this isn’t the question we should be asking. Viruses are evolving entities that are intimately related to cellular life. But we do not understand life.
In this time of worry and self-isolation, it is easy to think that viruses are our enemies. And of course, it’s true that some of them are (well our current understanding of them says so).
Sars, Mers, Ebola, HIV, swine flu, bird flu and Zika are among those that have caused deadly outbreaks in recent years.
However, it’s also true that the vast majority of viruses do not infect human beings at all, or even mammals. And many of these viruses are actually good for us, either by promoting our health or saving us from other diseases.
It’s easy to forget that most life is microscopic. And, just like viruses specific to mammals infect mammalian cells, a multitude of viruses have evolved to be experts at infecting the cells of bacteria. These viruses are called bacteriophages (or phages, for short).
Whereas bacteria are living organisms made from a single cell, a virus is a biological entity comprising a bundle of genetic material wrapped in a protein coat. It lacks the means to ensure its own independent existence so it infects a host cell to hijack its cellular machinery, enabling the virus to make copies of itself. To do this, it attaches itself to the cell’s surface and injects its genetic material into the cell where it can take control.
Scientists have studied bacteriophages for decades, observing how phages can spread through a population of bacteria, first infecting and then bursting open cells as they rapidly multiply.
Or alternatively, how they can co-exist with remarkable stability, often sustaining a diverse community of bacterial species in environments such as the open oceans or the human gastro-intestinal tract. They do this by preventing any single bacterium from growing to become too dominant, a lot like the way animal predators keep prey populations under control.
Viruses are increasingly seen as essential to the microbe communities inside our body.
The more we understand phages, the more we are starting to view them as an essential component of microbial ecosystems, maintaining diversity and functionality rather than acting as agents of disease. For example, it is now known that a diverse microbiota – the community of micro-organisms living in our guts – is associated with health in humans.
This includes the proper functioning of the immune system, the absorption of nutrients in the intestine and even our changing moods and behaviour. Phages play a key role in maintaining this diversity and are therefore, at the level of the microbial ecosystem within us, contributors to overall human wellbeing.
Also, researchers found that opportunistic pathogens, which cause disease by taking advantage of those with weakened immune systems, were prevalent in these healthy individuals. However, no highly virulent microbes such as the NIAID Category A-C pathogens, which includes ebola (A), salmonella (B), or rabies (C), were found. If we likened these pathogens to genetic traits - genetic variants resulting in slightly detrimental traits are common even among those who are healthy, whereas high-risk genetic variants are very rare.
To understand more how this might work and why some are more at risk for disease than others please read the “Germ Theory vs Terrain Theory” blog.
What does our innate immune system do to regain homeostasis if it feels threatened?
The most obvious reactions, and those that we can see and feel, are the ones you might associate with getting a ‘cold’. For example is it possible that a fever could actually benefit one’s health? Most of our society lives with the idea that health is a state of “feeling good,” and “not being sick or diseased.” We fear contact with bacteria, virus, and other microorganisms. We use anti-bacterial soap, sprays, pills, potions, & lotions. We are constantly “gearing up,” for the next big flu pandemic, etc.
In traditional cultures, fevers were always well respected and understood. Most people knew that the fever would build up and then break, much like a wave rolling into shore. Now, our society tries to suppress the fever immediately using antipyretics, or substances that lower temperature.
These antipyretics include acetaminophen and ibuprofen. These quickly lower the temperature but they also silence the body and hinder the development of the immune system, this allows the invading organisms to survive. Of course as always, please seek advice from your medical advisor and you should always consult your doctor when fevers go over 103/39.5 degrees or last longer than four days. If the fever causes discomfort, trouble breathing or convulsions at any time it would be an indication to go to the emergency room.
A problem of our own making - Warfare! Many of the disease phenomena making news headlines these days underscore the deficiencies of the current pharmaceutical model and reveal challenges that are the direct result of our take-no-prisoners assault and warfare on germs.
Our ancestors were exposed to billions of microbes in their homes and in their foods. Most of my food comes from a supermarket. By inhibiting microbial growth in these foods to extend shelf life, or sterilising them for safety, most of my food is devoid of microbial diversity. By sanitizing my home and living space, furnished with unnatural and chemically produced materials, and eating these relatively sterile foods, my microbiome has become less diverse than my ancestor’s microbiomes were for hundreds of thousands of years. Even nowadays, populations living more traditional lifestyles have greater gut diversity than those of us in the industrialised world. We now know that industrialised gut microbiomes are less diverse than the microbiomes of more traditional lifestyles. However before we all panic and go live in a forest somewhere, there are lots of things we can do to help our ‘ecosystem’. And as the wonderful Sarah Ballantyne says “It’s only effort before it’s habit”. By shopping and eating locally and seasonally, using gentler cleaning products, not being afraid of getting our hands dirty in soil we can have a massive impact on our ‘ecosystem’. By eating a diverse diet with as many types of plant foods as we can, remembering to eat the rainbow as each colour has different functions, focussing on the “How not the What” so how was the vegetable/animal reared, grown, handled is much more important.
We need to feed our guests prebiotics, invite more friendly guests by eating probiotics and encourage the right postbiotics. For more details read the Pre- and Probiotic blog.
And as we discussed one of the easiest and quickest way to become A Good Host is to avoid ultra-processed foods – so anything with 5 or more ingredients on the label – put it back!
Even better buy foods with no labels as Dr Mark Hyman says.
Right now back to our warfare, dangerous superbugs are emerging, largely due to overuse of “anti-everything” drugs such as antibiotics and antifungals, and are ushering in a potential return “to a world in which infectious diseases drastically shorten lives.” Some have estimated that drug-resistant pathogens will become a bigger killer than cancer by 2050. Now that is something worth considering for sure!
Functional Medicine already utilise the makeup of a patients’ microbiomes for personalised and precision medicine as well as using phages and other microorganisms as treatments. It is a fascinating field of medicine, one which is moving very rapidly so stay curious and ask questions.
If you are curious and would like more information about Virome here are some great resources.
“Viruses Can Help Us as Well as Harm Us” https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/viruses-can-help-us-as-well-as-harm-us/
NIH “The Human Microbiome Project: Extending the definition of what constitutes a human” https://www.genome.gov/27549400/the-human-microbiome-project-extending-the-definition-of-what-constitutes-a-human
“Fevers can have some cool benefits” https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/fever-can-help-immune-cells-attack
“How a Fever Benefits Your Health” https://drjockers.com/fever-benefits-health/
“History of chicken pox may reduce risk of brain cancer later in life” https://www.bcm.edu/news/chicken-pox-may-reduce-risk-brain-cancer