You are an entire ecosystem. Your body is pulsating with vibrant and dynamic life. It is every bit as busy as a bustling city and as complexly interconnected as an old growth forest. You have entire worlds, different cultures, and even distinct neighborhoods in every nook and cranny of your body.
Consider this entire biosphere, completely invisible to the naked eye, and yet absolutely essential to all aspects of your health and well-being. Humans have co-evolved with these resident microbes over many thousands of years. Each of us houses more than a thousand different species of bacteria on our skin. In fact, we are technically more bacteria than human; we actually have ten times more microbial cells than human cells!
The multitudes of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and more which make up your microbiome affect your physical vitality as well as your emotional state. There have been numerous studies that highlight the relationship between a balanced gut microbiome and happiness. There is also a very interesting relationship between the gut, the skin, and the brain, but right now I want to home in on the skin microbiome.
A balanced skin microbiome protects our bodies against invading pathogens, educates and alerts our immune system, and even produces medicinal and moisturizing compounds that keep our skin clear, radiant, supple and healthy. Thankfully, our society is in the process of emerging from an era when “bacteria” was synonymous with “pathogen” and was inherently considered “bad.” Today it is well understood that beneficial micro-organisms are vital. This is clearly seen in the somewhat recent explosion in popularity of probiotics and fermented foods with live cultures.
As usual, however, commercialization of these concepts is liable to lead to some over simplification of the whole picture. It is not actually as straightforward as good bugs versus bad bugs, or beneficial bacteria versus pathogens. In fact, the same bacteria that can facilitate cell renewal, detoxification, and a strong immune response when it is in a balanced environment could also be triggered to begin producing toxins when there is an imminent threat to its existence or some sort of environmental imbalance. In recent skin microbiome research, most common skin disorders (think acne, eczema, rosacea, psoriasis) have been postulated to have some alteration or imbalance in the skin microbial community as a key factor in triggering the skin problem. This is a huge revelation and can take us so far along the path of restoring healthy skin to many frustrated and suffering individuals!
While every person’s microbiome is unique, we do all share certain skin microbe all – stars: Propionibacterium, Corynebacterium, and Staphylococcus bacteria account for over 60% of bacteria in healthy adults. I won’t go too far down this rabbit hole, but if you want to hard-core nerd out with me, I recommend starting with this study.
I do want to present a few examples to illustrate the points I’ve made. First, P. acnes (recently renamed to C. acnes) is the microorganism most commonly associated with acne. It is also the most abundant organism in the microbiome of healthy and acne-free adults! This incredible insight is the best illustration of how the problem of acne does not come from the presence of acne causing bacteria. Rather than focusing on antibiotic treatments that wreak havoc on the microbiome and promote growth of antibiotic resistant strains, we should be considering the holistic context. In addition to the presence of the bacteria, there are so many other variables including: genetics, immunity, skin barrier, microbiome, mental and emotional status, diet, and environment.
Another interesting example is S. aureus, the bacterial strain most closely associated with eczema (also known as Atopic Dermatitis). S. aureus has also been found to have the ability to convert amino acids on our skin into compounds that contribute to our skin’s Natural Moisturizing Factor (NMF) and UV protection. So you see, it’s not all good and it’s not all bad. It’s about balance. When S. aureus, a potentially pathogenic bacteria, is present in a balanced microbial environment, its neighbors produce special antimicrobial substances that inhibit its spread, keep it harmless, and in fact allow it to work for the community’s overall benefit. Another fascinating factoid is that there is no evidence of common skin microbial pathogens developing resistance to the natural antibiotic compounds that our skin’s own microbiome produces, in stark contrast to lab-produced antibiotics!
I think all of these subtle relationships that make up our unique ecosystems are so very important. Beyond being mind boggling and fascinating, the current innovative microbiome research is consistently adding more and more evidence to support that problems and disorders generally come from a blip or misalignment in a series of generally extremely well honed and resilient systems. We have much to gain from moving away from fixating on the symptoms and instead focusing on inviting balance and alignment so that our body, in all of its innate wisdom, can become our partner and collaborator on the path to health, happiness, and natural beauty.