I wish I had microscopic vision.
Because you wouldn’t look like a human, but a mass of microorganisms organized in a human shape, surrounded by cloud of microbes that would swirl every time you moved.
Or scratched yourself.
We know that the microorganisms that live in our gut are critical for our health.
But we tend to forget about the skin microbiome.
Like the microbes in our gut, the microflora that live on our skin defend their habitat for their own survival, and depending on whether the resident communities of microbes are ‘commensals’ (our allies) or pathogens, these residents either offer us protection or cause us harm.
According to Dr. Julie Segre and Dr. Yasmine Belkaidur in a paper in a 2014 issue of Science (find a summary here), a commensal skin microbiome performs a variety of healthful functions as it cultivates the conditions that enable it to thrive, such as:
- Immune system screening;
- Tissue repair;
- Wound healing;
- Inflammation control;
- Production of defensive anti-microbial peptides;
- Acceleration of the complement arm of the immune system; and
- Regulation of interleukin-1 and modulation of T cells, which are key actors in directing immune system response.
Since learning about the role of the gut microbiome in diseases of all kinds, many of us have begun to focus on the health of our gut flora. But by ignoring the skin, we may be missing an important community of microbial allies that can improve our well-being.
“Humans want to eat yogurt because they have the concept that the microbes in their gut are providing a benefit,” said Dr. Segre, “Whereas on their hands, all people want to do is use hand sanitizer and sterilize themselves. They really do not perceive that there is a benefit to the microbes that reside on their skin.”
She points out that “If the [skin] microbiota is sick, the human host will probably get sick, too.”
We have proof of that at our house.
The Skin Microbiome, Skin Conditions & Autoimmune Disease
My husband Matthew has suffered from psoriasis since infancy.
Recent research indicates psoriasis is corelated with particular microbial communities on the skin. But beyond just his skin, 13 years ago he also developed an associated autoimmune disease, Psoriatic Arthritis, which resulted in significant disability before he began the Autoimmune Protocol in 2013.
The link between the skin microbiome and Psoriatic Arthritis is considered in this paper.
A recent webcast by Dr. Pranab Mukherjee explores the role of the skin microbiome in psoriasis. Dr. Mukherjee’s research resulted in two main findings:
- The skin microbiome of people with psoriasis is different than those without psoriasis; and
- For those with psoriasis, the microbiome of involved skin, where patches of psoriasis is found, has a distinct microbiome compared to that of uninvolved skin.
This supports research that shows that distinct signatures in the gut microbiome are corelated with different autoimmune conditions, which I wrote about last March in The New Astronomy of the Human Gut: Mapping the signature constellations of our microbiome.
Dysbiosis in the skin microbiome is also associated with other skin conditions, including eczema and acne.
Bruce Agnew notes that “eczema prevalence has doubled in industrialized countries, possibly because of environmental pressures on the skin biota, such as increased usage of antibiotics, less exposure to environmental microbes in soil and water, and more conditioned environments.”
He notes that some researchers believe that these significant changes in the skin microbiome may be contributing to the current epidemic of chronic diseases in developed countries.
The Microbial Cloud
Microbes not only proliferate on our skin, but they also surround us in a kind of aura, according to microbial ecologist James Meadow and his co-researchers, who published their findings in the paper Humans differ in their personal microbial cloud.
“A lot of the recent work on the human microbiome has revealed that we’re kind of spilling our microbial companions all over our houses and our offices and the people around us,” Meadow explained in an easy-to-read article about this research by Rob Stein.
Rob explains that Meadows and his team arranged for 11 healthy people to sit still in a specially designed booth for four hours while they analyzed DNA from the microbes floating in the air. Through this method, they “could clearly detect plumes containing thousands of different types of bacteria. They could discern all sorts of things from each plume, such as whether the person in the booth was a man or a woman.”
So. We now have scientific proof that cooties are real.
They also determined that each person had a unique bacterial cloud, both in terms of the amount of bacteria and a distinct signature of bacterial types.
Caring for your Microbial Zoo
Digging in to the research is fun, but it doesn’t tell us how to care for the commensal microbial community that lives on our skin.
New studies have shown that it may be particular constellations of skin microflora that either inhibit or encourage the development of infections after exposure, including to sexually transmitted diseases.
One more reason to figure out how to manage our microbiota!
Interestingly, there isn’t much out there in Paleo-blog-land about cultivating a healthy skin microbiome. Except the ever prescient Mark Sisson with his post How to support Healthy Skin Bacteria.
Motherdirt products ship to the United States and Canada, and are designed to introduce Ammonia Oxidizing Bacteria as a way to rebalance the skin microbiome. Julia Scott was an early test subject for a Motherdirt prototype, and she wrote about her month-long experience as a bacteria-rich science expereiment in the New York Times.
But we don’t actually need instructions.
We just need live the way humans were designed to.
With our food, our sleep, the way we move our bodies and our hygiene routines.
We already know what what to do~.
My appreciation to Kathleen Daunhauer for sharing thoughts (& links) with me about the skin microbiome~.