What’s bugging you?

Your body is like a planet. It is inhabited by trillions of creatures adapted to the various environments provided by different parts of your anatomy.

Every surface of the body exposed to the outside world – including skin, nose, ears, mouth, teeth, lungs, vagina and gut – are potential real estate for microorganisms. Some prefer the intense acidity of your stomach, others the salty moisture of your armpits. Body odour – both pleasant and unpleasant – is produced by bacteria. Most of our 100 trillion resident microbes are bacteria, but we also house viruses, fungi and archaea.

The most densely populated region of the body is the colon or large intestine. This is not surprising because the surface area of your gut is up to 100 times greater than the surface area of your skin. Right now in your colon an estimated 1000 bacterial species are breaking down food, manufacturing vitamins, buffering toxins and keeping harmful infections at bay.

The way we live our lives affects not only the earth and its animals but also the population of microorganisms that call us home. In return, the activity of our microorganisms influences us – our general health as well as our mood, energy levels, immune function, metabolic processes, food intolerances, even our height and weight.

The combined weight of the bacteria that inhabit your body is about 2kg – more than the weight of your brain (1.4kg)! A gram of faeces contains more bacteria than there are people on earth.

No two people have the same microorganisms living on their bodies, not even identical twins. In other words, everyone has a unique microbial identity, just as we have a unique fingerprint. This is one of the reasons why one diet does not fit all.

  • When and how do we acquire our distinctive microbial population (known as our microbiota)?
  • What role do they play in health and disease?
  • Can gut bacteria really make a person thin or fat?
  • What is the best way of cultivating a healthy microbiota and how important is this?

If you follow mainstream media and marketing, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you simply need to feed your ‘good’ bacteria with pre- and probiotics, avoid eating junk and add fermented foods to your daily fare. While this is good advice, the situation is far more complicated and nuanced.

For a start, different bacteria behave differently under different circumstances. ‘Bad’ bacteria are not always bad for us and ‘good’ bacteria are not always good. Just as humans behave differently in different situations, so do bacteria.

The other issue is that this is still an emerging area of science. We don’t have all the answers. We don’t even have all the questions. Every day new research hits my inbox. Scientists are in the process of determining what constitutes a healthy microbiome. (The microbiome refers to the genetic makeup of our microbiota but many people use the two terms interchangeably.) Scientists are starting to compile a list of bacteria that seem to be desirable – and the key appears to be diversity. The more different species you carry, the better. But just as restoring a rainforest involves more than adding or subtracting a few species, so too restoring optimal gut health will mean more than simply tweaking our diet to encourage the growth of more friendly bacteria.

Over the ensuing months I’ll answer the questions posed above and keep you updated on the latest research involving our merry microbes.

* To read other HEB’s in the gut series click below:

Showing 8 comments
  • Mick Ballard

    Very very interested in this subject and I trust and appreciate your blogs thankyou

    • Helena Popovic

      And I appreciate your response – if I know a subject is of interest to people I’ll keep you posted on new developments.

  • Colin Glover


    This is such useful information. I have been following this fascinating area for some while as a lay person. So I’ll be very interested in what you reveal as always


    • Helena Popovic

      What I like about this subject is that it illustrates how much our lives depend on the wellbeing of other lifeforms. Reigning in the indiscriminate use of antibiotics needs to become a major focus of medical practice.

  • Larry Deutchman

    Good evening.

    Are you a “functional medical practitioner?

    Do you share similar views as Dr Mark Hyman?

    My sibling, Has told me to seek advice from such a professional.

    • Helena Popovic

      I am not a Functional Medicine practitioner but I agree with the overarching philosophy that treating ill health needs to take into account a person’s whole life – their diet, daily habits, environment, stress levels and relationships. The focus in Functional Medicine is to determine the root cause of an illness and to individualise treatment for each person. This means that different people may receive different treatments, even if they present with the same symptoms. Within this context, I share some – but not all – of Dr Mark Hyman’s views in relation to diagnostic methods, dietary advice and treatments. The important thing is that you find a health professional with whom you feel comfortable, who listens to your concerns and who works with you in finding the most suitable approach for you. If your interaction with your healthcare provider leaves you feeling empowered to take positive steps to improve your health, then this is a good start. Before you even see a doctor, do your best to get regular good quality sleep, 30 minutes of exercise a day (a walk is fine or if you have physical limitations, whatever you are capable of) and a friend or family member to support you on your healing journey. Let your healing be an adventure!

  • Helen

    Learning from your book, radio presentations & this blog is great but needing more to find the right solution or progress towards a solution for my gut health

    • Helena Popovic

      Gut health is a burgeoning field with new research being published every day. We know from the Human Microbiome Project (HMP) that everyone’s gut bacterial composition is unique. In fact, the microbial differences between us are greater than our genetic differences. What this means is that YOU are the best source of your own answers. I imagine you’re already paying close attention to how your gut responds to different foods. In addition, gut health is influenced by sleep, exercise, stress, time spent in nature and a myriad of other lifestyle factors that we’re still piecing together. Observing and keeping a record of your symptoms in different situations may help you see what ameliorates or exacerbates your condition and you can then adjust your food and lifestyle choices accordingly. This may seem tedious but that’s the way of most scientific research. Small meticulous observations over long periods of time will eventually lead to solutions. Depending on where you live, you might also like to visit The Centre for Digestive Diseases in Five Dock, Sydney: centrefordigestivediseases.com. They are doing ground-breaking work in treating diseases of the gut. I wish you all the best on your journey.

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