Now that the kids have left, several friends have recommended I get a dog or two for companionship. I have, instead, found another type of pet. In fact, I’ve found trillions of them. Conveniently, they live right in my gut.
I’d never heard the phrase “gut biome” until recently. As far I as can tell, it’s a fancy new way of saying “intestinal bacteria.” A “biome” sounds far more appealing, as if it’s a magical ecosystem soon to be visited by David Attenborough: “If you look closely, you’ll see this little microbe digesting some of his host’s Limburger cheese from last night. Disgusting, isn’t it?”
Turns out these little critters are responsible for much of our health, and require proper care and feeding to be healthy and happy. They need nurturing, like an adorable little puppy, but one that lives inside you. They take to fiber, apparently, like a bear to honey. So, I make sure I provide my bacterial companions with celery, kale, mustard greens and other yummy treats. I imagine them sitting upright on their little cell walls, wagging their flagella, almost begging me to send some Brussels sprouts their way. In return, they help me lose weight, just like walking a dog would, only I don’t have to clean up the dog’s poop afterwards, just my own.
Sometimes the bacteria are called “gut flora,” so maybe what I’m doing is more akin to gardening than having pets. By providing the flora with the appropriate organic material, I am helping establish a rich, loamy gut soil for them to grow in and flourish. Instead of using photosynthesis to survive, they are using something scientists call “endocytosis,” which is when a bacterium swallows food by surrounding and absorbing it, the same thing that happens when I see a party-size bag of Cape Cod Potato Chips. I don’t eat them for myself, I eat them for my intestinal pals, as a break from the fiber. It’s not unlike giving Fido a Milk-Bone biscuit, if it were laden with salt and fat.
Sometimes I’ll eat an orange and tell my wife I’m doing it for my gut biome. She rolls her eyes, but it makes me feel good about what I’m doing for others, that’s just the kind of guy I am, I guess. And you won’t find it in the scientific literature anywhere, I’ve looked, but I also suspect the biome responds well to beer. It’s my “hypothesis.” My wife is less convinced, but the experiment continues. “Don’t be anti-science,” I tell her.
In time, I will approach researchers to see if they want to take any samples from my gut to examine my biome’s health. I think they will be amazed at what they find. My bacteria will be in remarkably robust health, no doubt, and eventually I may even become known as the Bacteria Whisperer. Animal Planet will approach me to do their first series on the joys and tribulations of unicellular pets. I will have filled the gaping hole of my children’s departure with new, pili-covered friends, friends who follow me wherever I go and even sleep in our bed at night, tucked away snugly. In my large intestine.