To Keep Yourself Healthy: Brush, Floss, and Measure Your Microbes Daily?

By Veronique Greenwood | May 4, 2012 1:08 pm

vaginalAs these plots of bacterial diversity in two subjects over a period of 16 weeks show,
microbiomes vary widely among women and change radically over time.

When John Mayer sang “Your Body is a Wonderland,” he probably wasn’t talking about the trillions of microbes that live all over your skin and inside every orifice you have to offer—but it does pretty much describe things. In the last decade or so, scientists have confirmed that we’re just as much an ecosystem as a rainforest is: full of ecological niches inhabited by countless bacteria, many of which have been evolving with us for millions of years. Our tiny passengers aren’t passive, either. Studies in mice and some in humans have linked these microbial populations, or microbiomes, to the host’s digestion, gut health, behavior, and even mood. A healthy microbiome keeps the host’s systems in good working order and prevents invasion by microbes that mean us harm.

But what is a healthy microbiome, exactly? That’s an important question, since diagnosing and treating illnesses related to microbiome imbalance requires some definition of normal. In the first few studies to try to address this question, scientists have found that there are some patterns: one study suggested that there could be three gut microbiome “types,” similar to blood types. Since proposed treatments for microbiome problems include “transfusions” of bacteria from a healthy microbiome (including “fecal transplants“), this is an attractive analogy. But a new study on the human vaginal microbiome suggests that the real story might be much more complicated.

Studies exploring a healthy micobiome often look at a single sample from each person. But it turns out if you sample someone regularly, at least in the case of the vagina, you can watch the entire microbiome change radically—to the point of becoming unrecognizable—in a matter of days.

Here’s the basic story: In a previous study, this team found there were five rough vaginal microbiome types present across a sample of hundreds of women, and that certain types correlated with race. In this study of 32 women, sampled twice weekly for 16 weeks, those types still generally held, but some women swung wildly from type to type, while others never changed. Sometimes it was clear what the triggers were: menstruation could cause the entire microbiome to change, as could sex. Sometimes, it wasn’t. To make matters more complicated, the microbiome as a whole kept pumping out roughly the same amounts of the same molecules—lactic acid, for example, which keeps the vagina acidic and wards off new, invading bacteria—even while the microbial make-up of the population completely turned over.

These four vaginal microbiomes could not be more different,
both in terms of the variety of the bacteria and their tendencies
to change over time. Each color is a different strain
of bacteria. (Red strips indicate menses.)

This finding could have implications for the future of women’s health. Doctors have generally been operating on the principle that vaginal infections are identifiable by an overgrowth of Gram-negative bacteria. But a good portion of these women had exactly that kind of bacterial profile at some points yet were perfectly healthy. And it’s clear that monitoring the bacteria’s production of molecules like lactic acid could be just as important as surveying what’s there, in terms of assessing health. With the clarity that comes with better technology, we’re now seeing that the dynamics of infectious disease are more complicated than we thought.

To understand these dynamics, and learn how to use them to maintain health, we’re going to have to adjust how we’re learning about microbiomes. These populations are changing in real time, and looking at one or two samples from each subject won’t catch what’s happening. Instead, we should get hi-def, time-resolved data from individuals, and use that information to classify people into microbiome types that could eventually help doctors provide more directed and effective treatment. (The vaginal microbiome, thanks to hormone cycles, might reasonably be assumed to be more variable than other microbiomes, like those in the gut or on the skin, but multiple samples over time would be a good best-practices approach for studying those too.) These subtypes might be hard to see at first, since they’ll have incorporate microbiomes’ changeability, but they could be very helpful in medicine. Tracking down the subtypes of breast cancer, for instance, has revealed 10 different versions of the disease that respond to treatment differently.

A couple of months ago, geneticist Michael Snyder published a study in which he analyzed biomarkers in his own blood and other fluids over a period of months and was able to catch his body in the act of developing type 2 diabetes. If, as this vaginal microbiome study suggests, what’s normal varies greatly between people, and over time in the same person, maybe that’s the wave of the future.  We came to this party expecting snapshots of the microbiome would be enough, at least to start. Now it looks like it would be better to have a slideshow.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
  • Neuroskeptic

    Those graphs are pretty cool. I’ve gotta say, I never thought I’d see such pretty pictures based on vaginal bacteria.

  • James38

    This has been talked about more and more for several years. I am very pleased to see this article, since it deepens the study of the ecology of the body, and the graphic presentation makes the ideas very accessible.

    The recent growth in probiotic supplements, including those designed for use after courses of antibiotics, shows that the understanding of the importance of a healthy biome has been growing for some time. For several years I have experimented with different combinations of various bacteria offered by a variety of companies. They have radically different effects on me, shown in the changes in stool and digestion. I am sure that in the future there will be a wider variety of probiotic mixtures based on an individual’s biome-type (one of the better ones currently available is Prescript-Assist). The yogurt product “Activa” is based on a specific bacterium that alters the intestinal flora significantly. Some people find it far too “effective”, while many are happy with the result.

    As this branch of the study of the body is improved, it will lead to major improvements in disease prevention and treatment, and a very different approach to the use of antibiotics. I recommend that the researchers add a deep assessment of the use of Sodium Chlorite in the balancing of the biome system as well as in the treatment of various diseases and parasitic infections. A 24% solution of Sodium Chlorite is mixed approximately one drop to one drop with a citric acid solution of about 2 ounces of Citric Acid to four ounces of water. The result is a mixture of ClO2 and Sodium Citrate. That is diluted in a cup of water or water/fruit juice mix, and is swallowed. The ClO2 quite selectively attacks and destroys parasites and disease-causing bacterial imbalances. I have found it to be more effective than any antibiotic, and far less disruptive to the normal Biome. The available evidence I have seen suggests it to be effective against Malaria as well.

    The treatment protocols are complex, but a workable beginning point would be to use six to eight drops of the Sodium Chlorite solution activated with an adequate amount of the Citric Acid, and take this dose every hour in the case of severe infection, tapering off to twice a day as symptoms change. (Higher doses can be used, up to the point of causing some short lived gastric distress in some individuals at dosages up to and beyond 12 to 20 drops, and in the case of some severe infections, a solution can be injected intravenously.) One good thing about this treatment for bacterial infections is that there is no apparent way for a micro-organism to develop a resistance to this substance. Thus, if you under-treat, and the infection recurs, a stronger and/or longer course of treatment will succeed, and in no case will resistance develop.

    I have had indications that this material also works with some success against viral infections, but that is not so clear to me. Much more work needs to be done on modes of use and protocols re amounts etc. It may be that once the viral infection is established inside cells, the treatment is not effective except against the viral material in circulation in the bloodstream. I have no information about penetration into the lymphatic system except to note that when used against an established bacterial infection resulting from a compound fracture of my ankle; it was significantly more effective than Zyvox, clearing up an infection completely in about two weeks that previously had only been held in check by antibiotic treatments. I would suspect that the ClO2 penetrated the lymphatic system, or the problem would have persisted as it had been doing in spite of the Zyvox. This also gives me reason to feel that MRSA would be treatable with the Sodium Chlorite regimen. Since Zyvox is currently the best treatment for MRSA, it is of concern that MRSA could extend its resistance to Zyvox as well. The ClO2 solution can also be applied topically, and in combination with swallowing the solution. This treatment would be good for MRSA, and was the only treatment to effectively deal with a serious fungal infection I had on the skin of the same ankle. (I had tried various tablets – after liver function testing – and ointments prescribed by a dermatologist, and they had only a brief temporary palliative effect.) The strength of the topical solution must be regulated with considerable care, since if too strong, it will burn the skin seriously. The strength needed for treatment can equal the level that will start causing irritation and burning. It requires minute by minute observation and quick changing of the compress before burning occurs. Weaker solutions can be left in place longer, but will in some cases not have much effect.

    Since, properly used, this material is not toxic, and does not disturb the beneficial biome to any degree I have detected, it has great potential to improve health care at a low cost.

    Of course, the next development of this body-ecosystem concept will be to study the viral analogue. There is obviously a viral biome just as extensive, and every bit as significant. Consider the various types of virus that have been identified as causing cancer of the vagina, and the work that has been done developing the vaccine that is now available. I suggest that is just the tip of another iceberg.

  • Passa

    Sodium chlorite? ie Miracle Mineral Supplement? yes it does kill pathogenic bacteria and other microorganisms, but it is an indiscriminate antibiotic and highly caustic. The only advantage I see in it is maybe to quickly lower a heavy viral load

    Fecal transplant and helminthic therapy, coupled with changes in diet and probiotic supplementation to rebuild the immune system and make a shift to TH1 production are a far more sensible approach

  • William O. Tobias

    I hope after reading this, I won’t give up thinking that my body is a wonderland because of those ugly microbes.


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