The Good Bacteria

Last week I wrote about some of the dangers of overuse and misuse of antibiotics: they create resistance among the disease causing bacteria and make antibiotics less effective in saving lives.  There is an equally important second reason, however.  The overuse and misuse of antibiotics kill and damage the good bacteria upon which we depend for our health.

Gut health affected by teams of bacteria, not individual species

Not all bacteria are bad for us.  We have evolved over millions of years alongside bacteria.  Some of them have taken up residence inside us.  We benefit from them and we have given them a home.  We have literally billions of bacteria living inside us at any given moment.  The bacteria in our bodies help us digest our food, regulate our immune system, protect against other bacteria that cause disease, and produce vitamins including B vitamins B12, thiamine and riboflavin, and Vitamin K, which is needed for blood coagulation.  They are even believed to affect brain function and our emotions.  They are part of a larger system, known as the microbiome, which includes bacteria, fungi, protozoa and bits of viruses, that we have picked up over the past few million years.

The existence of the microbiome was unknown until the 1990’s.  This is one of the reasons we still know so little about it.  One thing we do know, however, is that we need a healthy microbiome.  Without it, we are susceptible to illness and a poorly functioning immune system.  We need a healthy and diverse microbiome.  The fewer the types of microbes in our guts, the poorer job they do of carrying out their functions.  Processed foods and foods with lots of sugars are believed to reduce the level of diversity.

One thing that certainly reduces microbiome diversity is the use of antibiotics.  They kill good bacteria at the same time that they kill the bad ones.  In some cases, they are far more effective against the good bacteria than they are against the bad bacteria.  Treatments for fungal diseases, for example, are well-known to kill beneficial gut bacteria.  You may notice a correlation between taking antibiotics and the development of diarrhea.  Your body is trying to tell you something.  Our western way of life, with its emphasis on cleanliness, deprives our bodies of the environment they evolved to exploit.  It is no wonder that many illnesses are found far more often in developed western societies than in the less-developed world, which is more like the world our ancestors faced.

Many scientists are worried that behaviors we have adopted to fight the coronavirus pandemic will have the effect of reducing microbiome diversity.  The increased use of disinfectants and social distancing, for example, reduce our exposure to new bacteria.  Exposure to new bacteria may be an essential part of a healthy microbiome.  As the article to which I just linked suggests, we may need to learn to live with germs again, if we want to be our healthiest selves.

Without exposure to pathogens, our immune systems tend to go haywire.  As the old expression goes, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”  An immune system with no real, outside enemies to fight may invent enemies.  The malfunctioning immune system attacks organs in its own body.  This is one of the theories used to explain the rise of autoimmune diseases in western societies.

Our bodies developed to operate at maximum efficiency in a certain environment.  That environment did not feature highly processed foods or widespread use of disinfectants.  If we don’t return to at least some of the old ways, we will find ourselves getting sick from the very things we hoped would protect us from illness.



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