This summer, my family veered on the adventurous side and planted one baby hibiscus tree in the yard. This may not sound particularly daring, but given our decades-long stance on refusing to grow anything remotely green or photosynthesizing in nature, our decision bordered on defiance and radicalism.
As we tended to the tree, my family slowly evolved to fill the role of an overprotective “plant mom,” taking note of every single change the plant exhibited and every single creature that flirted with our beautiful flowers — a retinue of hummingbirds and butterflies regularly sojourned to visit our scarlet-hued hibiscus extravaganza. This was shocking because we viewed hummingbirds as a mythological concept — we heard tales of their existence but never saw them in New Jersey suburbia to confirm their presence.
It turns out you need to plant the right greenery to yield a mix of wildlife. Grow roses and you will find bees, grow orchids and you will find wasps. Altering the flora will diversify the fauna.
Interestingly, this curious principle has grounds in the human microbiome.
As I hope you now understand from reading my previous columns, humans are a proxy environment for trillions of microbial entities and (often unknowingly) harbor various lifeforms on and within their bodies.
The composition of our microbial tapestry varies from person to person, but recent research indicates that it is even more elastic than we originally could have imagined. There is strong evidence to suggest that the critters we house can change within an evolutionary blink of an eye on a day-to-day basis.
Echoing the pattern of how plants determine which insects visit a garden, our diet strongly governs which microorganisms inhabit our body. The gut microbiome of a meat lover greatly differs from that of a vegetarian, since different foods support different microbes. However, our microbiome inhabitants are so sensitive to the food we eat that regardless of our lifelong dietary history, snacking on processed foods one afternoon then dining on fish for several meals in a row can change an individual’s microbiome composition within 72 hours!
The microbiome’s highly fluctuating and fickle nature underscores our body’s sensitivity to diet. Though this changeability might lead you to believe that the correct organisms will return once you improve your eating habits, this is far from the truth.
Any disruption in microbiome composition results in a rapid process of colonization. Let’s say you switch from a plant-based diet to a dairy-based diet. This change will eliminate many of the species associated with your former veggie diet. However, this newly available space can be conquered either by opportunistic species in the area or by helpful microbes associated with dairy consumption. There is no guarantee that only beneficial organisms will inhabit your intestines. Furthermore, if you switch back to a pure plant diet within a few days, and the residential microbes are strong enough to avoid disturbance and stay put, then your intestines will not be colonized with the crucial microbes you need to digest plant material This will place more strain on your digestive system. In short, rapid diet changes can be detrimental for your health since they prevent the right microbes from residing in your intestines and properly breaking down food.
Clearly, it is instrumental to be a consistently healthy eater in order to sustain a beneficial and thriving microbiome. We often consider diet an afterthought, but this attitude can cause digestive issues if we heavily vary our diet too frequently. The smart approach is to find a nutritious meal plan that works with your body and follow it as best you can.
The more conscious we become about our microbial friends, the healthier we are. Make your diet a priority, and both your microbiome and your body will thank you.
Nikita Deshpande is a rising sophomore in the College. Microbial Explorations appears every other Wednesday.
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