The Jenga effect

We humans are made up of 30 trillion cells and for each human cell we have 3 microbial cells residing in us. Thus, we have roughly 100 trillion microbes living in harmony within us including bacteria, fungi, viruses and parasites. Even our human DNA consists of sequences from microbial DNA.

Most of the infectious diseases that we know are actually caused by microbes which normal residents of the human body. When our immune system is in optimal functioning, it prevents the friendly microbes from becoming harmful to us. However, when the immune system is not optimal for any reason, the microbes get a chance to become infectious. The Germ theory of disease says that a microbe is responsible for an infectious disease. But now that we know more about the microbiome, we understand that it’s a cascade effect and no one germ can be blamed. This cascade effect is what I call the Jenga effect.

A game of Jenga starts with a tightly packed tower of wooden blocks. The aim of the game is to remove as many wooden blocks as possible without letting the tower fall. Imagine this tightly packed tower is an optimally functioning body with a very healthy immune system. Let’s begin the story.

This body is a fetus in a mother’s womb in the beginning. Let’s say the mother is an occasional drinker and is on very bad diet during her pregnancy. This will impact the growing fetus and so we remove a block from the wooden tower. Next, the baby is born healthy, doing well, but the mother has other health issues because of which the baby has to be bottle fed formula milk. This will remove another block from the tower. The baby is doing fine till about 4 months, when it gets a bout of chest infection which requires 2 antibiotic courses and other drugs. The infection lasts for about 3 weeks before the baby gets better. This removes another two blocks from the tower. The body has to fight infection and remove the side effects of the heavy drugs used. But the baby is still doing great, all milestones are perfect. At around the age of 1.5, the child refuses to eat healthy food and survives on only milk, chocolates, junk and processed foods. This is quite a common complaint from toddlers. Due to the bad diet, the immune system doesn’t develop as well. Let us remove 3 more blocks from this.

When the child is 6 years old, it gets 3-4 bouts of severe tonsillitis which is treated with repeated antibiotic courses. Finally, the doctor advises to remove the tonsils. This is a huge blow to the immune system because tonsils are one of the key organs that manufacture immune cells. So let’s remove 4 more blocks from the tower. Then the tonsillitis stops, but the child still gets repeated colds over the next 12 years some of which are treated.

Now the kid is an adult and enjoying the perks of being a college student. He parties, tries smoking, drinking, late nights and all of that. In the meantime his diet is still filled with bread and processed food. No real nutrition. All this while, the blocks in the tower are falling one by one. But the tower still stands strong so no one suspects a thing.

At the age of 26, he is diagnosed with an autoimmune condition because his immune system has collapsed. His body is fighting his own cells. That removes 5 more blocks. He is now put on a regular course of steroids and other pain killers for his condition. In the mean time no one has looked into changing his lifestyle or diet. This goes on for 7 years. At the age of 33, he travels to Italy to party with his friends where he is exposed to the coronavirus. After a week of exposure he starts developing the symptoms which get severe very quickly. He is admitted to the hospital and put on some heavy drugs. This removes a very crucial block from the tower and gives him the fatal blow. He succumbs to the virus at the age of 33.

After listening to the whole story, can we blame only the virus for the death of this man? The virus merely pushed an already dysfunctional immune system over the edge. We need to stop the blocks from falling off the tower and focus on repairing the gaps if they have already been created. We have created so much fear around microbes that in our frenzy to be clean, we are killing even the good bacteria. It’s time we created a new paradigm for health, one that focuses on immune health rather than blame the microbes.   

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