On the way back from lunch, I tuned into a Sirius XM medical program on which physicians were discussing the health balance of your microbiome. If have haven’t heard that term, your microbiome is the balance of good and bad living things that exist inside and on your body. As noted on its Wiki,
“A microbiota is an “ecological community of commensal, symbiotic and pathogenic microorganisms“ found in and on all multicellular organisms studied to date from plants to animals. A microbiota includes bacteria, archaea, protists, fungi and viruses. Microbiota have been found to be crucial for immunologic, hormonal and metabolic homeostasis of their host.
Human beings are massive hosts for microbiota inside and out. In that respect we are much like trees, except that you can run around more than trees. Which means we are more like Lord of the Rings trees, called Ents that swung into battle once they realized they were going to be chewed up by environmental disaster driven by Orcs if they didn’t do something to help themselves. So the trees uprooted themselves and stomped on down to the valley where the battle raged to help out. They took all their microbiota with them. Just like us. There was also a set of battling tree in the Chronicles of Narnia. As it happens, the two blokes who authored those books, J.R.R.Tolkien and C.S.Lewis, used to drink together at a pub in Oxford, the Eagle and Child. (I’ve been there…) It is highly likely that while drinking they either stole each other’s ideas about walking warrior trees or agreed not to sue for plagiarism.
My point here is that the analogy of trees as people or people as trees is a curious one. After all, trees play host to microbiomes just like us. There are thousands of living organisms that depend on trees all the way up from the roots to the leaves and the air they give off to the world. A healthy tree can afford to sacrifice some leaves to munching worms or the grubs nibbling on the roots. But if the wrong kind of beetle gets into the trunk to grind away at the wood carrying nutrients up the trunk or limbs, the tree can get sick and dies.
Brian Wilson wrote a very moving song about A Day in the Life of a Tree:
One day I was full of life
My sap was rich and I was strong
From seed to tree I grew so tall
Through wind and rain I could not fall
But now my branches suffer
and my leaves don’t offer
Poetry to men of song
The clear allegory in Brian’s song is that a tree is very much a symbol for human life as well. His lyrics describe what it’s like to be healthy and strong. But eventually the stresses of life, especially pollution in the case of his tree, eat away at the health of the tree and it succumbs to disease.
To that point, millions of trees are now dying off across the face of North America due to the effects of climate change. In some cases, species of pine beetles that once were kept in check by cold winter temperatures are thriving in warmer climate conditions. So it’s not just the trees that are sick. It’s the whole forest. And if all the forests get sick and die, human beings are by proxy at risk as well.
We all know what it feels like to be sick or just “off” in some way. Low-level sickness is often the simple product of your microbiota getting out of balance. The bacteria in your gut usually lives in balance with your body when you’re healthy. But if some disturbance in diet or pathogen causes that balance to shift, people can get sick in a hurry.
Out on a limb
I lived through a microbiota battle two summers ago. It started with our cat nipping my hand, which led to a condition called cellulitis. The antibiotic I took to kill that condition was powerful, and it killed off some of my good gut bacteria. That led to an even more dangerous affliction called ‘c-diff,” a runaway bacterial condition that is both highly impactful to the body and highly contagious. Its profound manifestation is extremely loose and even dangerously prodigious bowel activity. Basically, you shit the hell out of your guts. It’s disgusting, exhausting, contagious and highly dangerous if not contained somehow. That condition puts you out on a limb until you’re healed.
Which meant that I had to take an entirely different round of antibiotics to combat the bad gut bacteria that had won out over the good microbiota normally governing the gut. Blessedly the c-diff has not returned. But for a while there is almost got my goat.
Probiotics are no cure-all
The doctors on the Sirius radio program discussed the fact that it is a fungus based pro-biotic named Florastor that actually helps quite well with c-diff. But they warned that many types of pro-biotics do not perform as people think. They’re not some cure-all. None of our guts is controlled exactly the same way. What works to restore balance for one person may not work at all for another.
The key here is that if you want to keep running and riding and swimming, you have to keep your microbiome from running away on you. That means learning something about what keeps you healthy. Learning what dietary patterns make you feel better or worse is one of the basics. How much water do you drink, and how much sugar, fat or processed foods are going into your gut. Because it’s a party of one kind or another down there, and we all know that parties can easily get out of hand.
All I can tell you is that my experience a couple summers ago made me far more aware of the importance of gut balance. A prior experience with a finger infection from a sliver also taught me a bit about the dangers of infections in general.
So be a good tree and learn a few things about the roots of your own health. You won’t treegret it.