The Bugs of St Cupid

You might have noticed that St Valentine’s Day is approaching. My wife and I don’t really “do the Valentine’s Day thing”. After Christmas, two wedding anniversaries (yes, we got married twice – double the fun, double the trouble) and one engagement anniversary early in the year, we’re kind of “uitgekuier” (worn out?) by the middle of February. At least, by that time, my wallet is thin enough to slide underneath the door without getting stuck.

Anyhow, I’d like to talk about the bugs of love. No, not the kind that hitch an unwelcome ride from partner to partner, although you’ll soon see that they are mere copycats of the true masters.

Where this is going: Over many years, I’ve come to understand that we humans judge other humans’ character chiefly by their fragrance. Visual appearance? Not even half as important. Clear judgement? Way, way down. Even stranger, when we make a “smell judgement”, we are not even aware of it (although, when you DO notice it, it normally evokes a very strong emotional response – either of revulsion or attraction).

You see, we all carry a smell. It becomes “our smell” within minutes of birth, and is as unique as our fingerprints (even if it is far less stable than a fingerprint). And yes, we have microbes to thank for this. Here’s a womb-to-womb view of how microbes and their smells influence our love lives.

Note: I may be accused of reducing love to “mere microbes”. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m just showing how biology meets body, soul, spirit and society in ways we never imagined. I’m also not judging anyone’s microbial choices, but simply highlighting how things were meant to operate and how our best intentions can thwart that.

Like the inside of an egg, the pregnant womb is one of the few 100% sterile places on earth. Even a single microbe can cause havoc here. Sterility is essential for the unborn child, yet it is vital for baby’s survival to get colonised by microbes immediately after birth. And this is exactly how mammal bodies were designed.

While passing through the well-colonised birth canal, plenty of the most important microbes enter Baby’s mouth and nasal passages. At that point, Baby’s stomach is not yet producing acid and the microbes pass unhindered into the protein-filled guts. Bingo! At the same time, the shape of the pelvis is such that Baby’s head pushes out a small helping of … er … let’s call it “number two” (or what midwives euphemistically call “the first twin”). This coats Baby’s protein-covered head and skin with more important microbes. Presto!

But the bugs don’t stop here. The area around the breast nipple is wrinkled and dark. Why? It acts as a “mircorbe rain forest”, a treasure trove of microbes. Every time Baby sucks, it gets along a mouthful of microbes. Coincidentally (?), milk is alkaline, which neutralises the stomach acid and these microbes also pass alive through the dangerous stomach into the gut. Happiness!

A small step for a microbe, a giant leap for the microbiome.

In terms of microbes, the five minutes after birth are about as important as the next month.

And the first month is about as important as the first year.

And the first year is about as important as the next twenty years.

I made those figures up, but I hope you get the picture. I base those figures on years of clinical assessment and studying published research. They’re not just figments of my colonised imagination.

Every type of microbe breaks down its food in a different way. Many of these food fragments produce smells, and every food fragment produces a different smell. We are colonised by millions, of microbe subtypes, producing a huge variety of smells. The complex combination of all these smells becomes “your fragrance”. And all this happens within 5 minutes after birth.

Socially speaking, we differentiate between three kinds of fragrances (let’s call it the “social fragrance spectrum”):

  • Smell of identity / peace
  • Smell of attraction / curiosity
  • Smell of opposition / fear

These are not hard categories, but fall along a spectrum. Each person experiences this spectrum differently, but we all have something like this Social Fragrance Spectrum inside of us. The bigger the overlap between an approaching stranger’s fragrance and ours, the more emotionally attracted we feel to that person. The less the overlap, the less the attraction and the greater the fear. Men and women differ markedly in this respect – most men need a greater fragrance overlap than women to feel a sense (“scents”?) of identity. At the same time, most men will still be in the sphere of attraction at a point when most women are already in the sphere of opposition.

In other words, when man and woman first meet, the man is much more likely to feel curious, while the woman is much more likely to feel fear. And you thought those were butterflies in your stomach?

Thus, when we’re talking romance, we’re hovering somewhere between Curiosity and Fear. At that point, we (hopefully) start using our other faculties to overcome (or otherwise) barriers to the approaching “mingling of microbes”.

If the mingling is successful, a neo-colonisation occurs as each partner’s microbes migrate to the other partner. This process needs to be repeated regularly (Yippee!), since either of the two “host” microbes doesn’t like invaders. It often takes years of a stable relationship before a “fragrance of identity” develops. Fortunately, the darkened, wrinkly (sometimes hairy) bits of skin in key contact areas act as “microbe rain forests” where invading microbes hide away. Eventually, the hosts and the invaders find a new truce, a kind of “two state solution” and a new Fragrance of Identity is established.

“And the two shall become one microbiome” (to paraphrase the Good Book)

You may remember how, as a child, you walked into your best friend’s parents’ house and it had a unique smell? And then, years later, you walked into your best friend’s apartment, now no longer living with his / her parents, and you got the same smell? That’s the power of microbes. That’s the Fragrance of Identity, passing on from one generation to the next.

After this cradle-to-cuddle look at microbes, let’s look at some of the ways in which we mess up (bug-ger up?) all of this.

First of all, in this post-Semmelweis era, healthcare professionals sterilise the birth canal and its neighbour directly before birth, to avoid “contamination” of the newborn. They conveniently forget that Semmelweis only advocated the washing of doctor’s contaminated hands. Over-eager sanitation weakens or destroys the inter-generational passage of microbes.

When Baby is born via Caesarean section (C/S for short), it is born in a completely sterile environment. By the time the first microbes enter, the stomach is already producing acid and colonisation of the gut has become incredibly difficult. By the time microbes manage to cross the stomach, the nutrient-dense meconium may have left the building, making it even harder for them to survive. Only a few colonies get established. Lack of microbe diversity leads to all sorts of health problems. A more diverse established microbiome leads to the best health and wellness outcomes.

By delivering sterile babies, we dramatically increase their chances of

  • colic,
  • allergies,
  • psychiatric illness,
  • irritable bowel syndrome or ulcerative colitis
  • diabetes,
  • heart attack
  • and even cancer.

Yes, all of those diseases are linked to low microbe diversity. It’s that serious.

In the absence of breastfeeding, Baby also misses out on repeated paternal microbe re-culturing. Yes, dads, there’s a good reason why you must kiss mom regularly. And hug her often (preferably minus clothing). And another good reason why brea stfeeding is needed for at least a year.

Overall, dads contribute a lot less to the inter-generational microbe leap than moms do. Which helps explain why siblings from the same mother (but not the same father) will usually feel closer to each other than siblings from the same father (but not the same mother).

You may have noted how mammals lick their babies after birth. They don’t do it to look cute on Facebook, or to bath their offspring (animals don’t normally take baths). They do it to spread saliva and microbes all over the coat, thus passing on the Fragrance of Identity while preventing other microbes from taking over. Humans tend to bath newborns – with perfumed soap and shampoo – thus wreaking havoc on the newly establishing skin microbiome. Newborns are coated with a layer of nutrient-dense protein – perfect starter food for the new microbes. Remove that, and Baby’s chances of a life with skin allergies jumps significantly.

To top it all, society gently pressurises moms to put their children into the care of a crèche in order to return to “work”. At that level, Baby has more microbial exchange with other babies than with its own parents. The inter-generational Fragrance of Identity is weakened even further.

While I have not found any research in this area, it is very likely that all this lack of a coherent “Family Fragrance” leads to serious distrust between the generations. We’ve come up with social tricks to counter this – doing fun things together, e.g. – but this alone does not remove the underlying, deep-seated suspicion that arises when a “Fragrance of Opposition” exists within the modern household.

The modern child often feels more in common with those who use the same brand of soap and shampoo than with its own parents. “Kids of a lather like to gather.”

Once we get old enough to date, we add all sorts of smells to our natural smell. Like mosquito repellent, this confuses the potential partner (bloodsucker?), creating a loophole in his / her defences. It also helps explain why people drinking large amounts of the same matured beverage feel attracted to one another as the night wears on. The smell of alcohol in the breath overwhelms all others, leading to a feeling of attraction, even identity. It does not help that higher brain functions are impaired, either. By the next morning, the Fragrance of Opposition is, however, back in full force. As are (some of) the higher brain functions.

I sincerely hope I haven’t ruined St Valentine’s Day for you… Maybe try and make it more ‘natural’ and less contrived. Fewer added smells and more real life. Not so sensual, but more scent-ual.

And, ah yes, the fragrance of a bunch of roses is 100% natural.

To your love bugs!

Doc Frank