human superorganism book coverReviewed by Poppy Johnson

Rodney Dietert, author of The Human Superorganism, focuses on explaining significant developments around chronic diseases, also called non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as allergies, cancer, heart disease, and obesity, as well as psychological disorders like depression. He is right–these diseases rule how we live and die, determine the quality of our lives and our limits, and measure our challenges. The author feels these NCDs are an epidemic in our modern society. He’s right again, but what can we do?

In The Human Superorganism, we get the long answer to this question. The book is broken down into three main sections: Part I – A shift in how we think about biology and understanding the mighty microbe; Part II – A revolution in medicine; and, Part III – Caring for yourself. Within those sections, Dietert discusses the new regard for biology, the importance of human superorganisms and genes, immune system malfunctions, the nature of epidemics, making over superorganisms and finally, understanding microbes.

This topic is not completely new. You may have heard of the Human Genome Project (in the 1980s) that encouraged collaboration with private and federal research agencies in the regions of North America, Europe and Asia. The results initially indicated that we had 50,000 genes and that number was later reduced to 22,000. These genes were analyzed to find ways to prevent diseases. But we weren’t as special as we previously thought. Even a roundworm’s genome sports 22,000 genes. Humans, then, are only going to be considered special if we can understand those 22,000 genes enough to cure diseases. These ideas could work, if it were not for our human superorganisms. The point is that we need our microbes too. And here is the rub–we spend our lives detoxing, cleaning out, delousing and getting rid of bacteria, but we actually need bacteria to live better lives.

Microbes are thousands of species of bacteria, fungi and viruses, inhabiting our skin, stomachs, mouths, you name it. In fact, there are currently over 400 identified places in and on our bodies where microbes reside, helping support everyday functions. In laboratory experiments, sterilized environment rats (read: rats living in a 100% sterile environment their entire lives) were fed normal rodent food, and died in only a few days when they were forced to eat “regular” un-sanitized food. Does this mean that eating a little dirt is good for us? It is indeed and we eat dirt without intending to all the time.

We all need microbes, and in fact babies have microbes that they get from their parents. Ancient and contemporary bacteria are necessary for our current survival. Then the important question becomes…are all microbes good for us? And are there microbes that can hurt us? As it turns out, various types of toxins that affect our body to produce birth defects are still bad for us, and should be avoided, well, like the plague.

It can get confusing, but bacteria and toxins are always in different camps. Take, for example, the discovery of H. pylori–the pivotal point of microbial education for us all. In the early 1980s, it was discovered that Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) was a bacteria only seen in humans, and was associated with stomach and peptic ulcers. People used to take antacids by the score, and drank Mylanta and that pink Pepto Bismol to “get rid of their ulcers.” But strong evidence showed that the presence of
H. pylori in our stomachs was actually good for us – scratch that, excellent, – and helped our immune systems deflect allergies, inflammation and more. Now we know better, and we need to apply this knowledge for better health outcomes.

We can always improve our health and gain control over our microbes by doing things like limiting the use of antibiotics and incorporating probiotics in fermented foods into our diets. Ancient probiotic foods included bread, soy, milk, cheese, wine, beer, sausage and chocolate. If our immune systems go wonky, our organs are left out to flap in the breeze, in the process making us highly susceptible to diseases that we don’t have a snowball’s chance to fight on our own.

This book teaches us all that we need to know and more about disease and our microbes, how to manage them and why we should not be afraid of them. I recommend it to anyone interested in biology, our inner bodily functions and overall better health.

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After a decade of working in several NYC law departments and teaching, Poppy decided she enjoyed writing full-time. She currently works as a freelance writing consultant, and lives with her husband and sons on the East Coast.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Dutton. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.