Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Bacteria–Gross or Good?

Bacteria. The word itself conjures up images of icky, gross, scary stuff that we want to avoid.  But is bacteria getting an undeserved bad rap? 

Certainly, bacteria is to blame for a history of undesirable, dangerous, and even deadly maladies.  But the more scientists learn about our bodies, the more they learn that some bacteria is not only safe, but essential to our health and survival as a species. 


But, Momma said that bacteria is bad…

Momma wasn’t wrong – some forms of bacteria are bad – the kind that cause disease. These bacteria are called “pathogens,” and can cause all kinds of trouble, such as:
  • Bacterial pneumonia, which is caused by bacterial infection
  • Acne breakouts, which are caused by a bacterium called Propionibacterium
  • Food-borne illnesses caused by bacteria, such as Campylobacter jejuni and Salmonella
  • Streptococcus A – better known as strep throat
  • Clostridium botulinum – better known as botulism – potent enough that one teaspoonful could kill every human being in the United States!
  • The “Great Dying” event that scientists say occurred 250 million years ago, producing enough methane to choke out most life on Earth – recent scientific data suggests that a single strain of marine bacteria could have caused or worsened it.
But here’s what Momma didn’t know. Even as she may have told you that you are one of a kind, the truth that scientists are learning is that we as individuals are not “one” at all; we are actually “superorganisms” – a collection of several hundred microbial species – a human host to a few hundred trillion bacteria.

The bacteria live on your skin, on your tongue, and mostly in your intestines.  Scientists estimate that you have a couple pounds of body weight purely in the form of microbes in your gut alone.

Ooh, gross! – Pounds of bacteria in my intestines??

Actually, you want to cozy up to these gut microbes – most of these trillion microbial guests are good bacteria – that kind that make your life better.  For example:
  • Gut bacteria is what creates vitamin K in your system.
  • Good bacteria can battle bad bacteria in eye infections
  • Good bacteria break down plant starches that your body otherwise has difficulty digesting
  • Good bacteria help your body convert calories into fat, some of which is necessary for survival
  • Bacteria help your body break down cancer-causing carcinogens
  • Bacteria help the walls of your digestive tract renew itself
  • Bacteria help your immune system to function properly
Scientists refer to the massive microbial community in your body as your microbiome.  The microbiome is such a new area of study that scientists cannot yet conclusively tell us what a healthy microbiome should contain, but they are learning more every day.  But what they are already sure of is that, if your health is “off” in some way, or if your body’s systems have what appear to be areas of weakness, it’s likely because your microbiome is off kilter – that you lack certain organisms, or have too many of a certain kind, weakening your body’s ability to deal with stress, or properly metabolize foods, or handle allergies, and so forth (read more on how you can improve your child’s health by encouraging the good bacteria).

Kefir and probiotics

How do my bacterial levels get healthy or unhealthy?

Scientists are discovering that many factors can negatively influence your microbiome.  Among them:
  • Not being born vaginally – exposure of the fetus to the birth canal appears to kick start the microbiome of the newborn.
  • Living in too pristine an environment – microbial exposure over the course of life appears to aid the health and diversity of the microbiome.
  • Lack of dietary diversity – exposure to a wide variety of foods, especially unprocessed foods, such as fruits and vegetables, strengthens the microbial environment of your gut.
  • Lack of social exposure – apparently, we rub off on each other, literally.  The more people you interact with, the more diverse your microbiome becomes, and diversity seems to strengthen it.
  • Lack of dietary fiber and probiotics in your diet.
  • Exposure to antibiotics – though an antibiotic may be necessary to overcome an illness, antibiotics kill off the good bacteria at the same time.
  • Antimicrobial compounds in the diet or environment – antibiotic residue is often found in meat, milk, and even surface water.  Even the frequent use of antimicrobial hand sanitizers, while protecting us from bad bacteria, are also killing off the good bacteria.
Girl playing with dirt

Is there anything I can do to improve my microbiome?

Your biome is largely formed by the time you are three years old, which is why it’s important to nurture a healthy microbiome from the earliest years.   That said, it is possible to positively influence your microbial innards and avoid those things that can harm it. For example:
  • Do not keep your toothbrush too close to your toilet – flushing can aerosolize some of what’s in the toilet bowl.
  • Avoid giving your  children antibiotics except when medically necessary.
  • Let a bit of dust settle in your home – your smallest children will benefit from early exposure to the “real world.”
  • Let your kids play in the dirt – the exposure can aid their microbiome diversity.
  • Encourage your family’s exposure to animals — petting a dog, for instance, spreads good bacteria from one human to another.
  • Reduce or eliminate processed foods from your diet.
  • Get some “prebiotics” in your diet – foods that stimulate the growth or presence of healthy bacteria in your body.  Fermented foods can help, such as kimchee, yogurt, and sauerkraut, which contain probiotic bacteria.
  • Expand your microbial biodiversity by consuming a wide variety of polysaccharides – plant foods that are high in fiber.
If you find the subject of healthy bacteria and how to positively influence your microbiome, read this lengthy but fascinating article from the NY Times online.  

Ric Moxley
Contributing Writer

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