Bacteria have a terrible reputation. They are seen as disease carriers and signs of a dirty home or an unclean body. They are seen as a dangerous invisible presence that should be eradicated wherever they might possibly appear.
This is in spite of an enormous body of medical and scientific research showing that bacteria are essential for all life.
Humans have 10 times more bacteria than cells
Humans have 10 times more bacteria than cells – even the most healthy of us!
Just because some bacteria can cause disease, it doesn’t follow that all bacteria will cause disease. That’s like saying that just because some foods can make you ill, you should never eat food.
Most bacteria are good for us
We couldn’t live without them. Bacteria help us digest our food, work with neurones and hormones to send and receive signals to the brain which can affect whether we feel hungry, relaxed or anxious, and they also help boost our immune system.
However there are dangerous and damaging, or pathogenic bacteria too. Scientific research shows that most of us – probably all of us – carry “unfriendly” or pathogenic microbes, but they don’t necessarily cause any health problems unless certain conditions come into play, such as being tired and run-down.
Bacteria can help us build a strong immune system
If we have a strong immune system we are more likely to be able to fight off pathogenic triggers, and the “friendly” bacteria in our gut can provide important assistance in this.
The study of the “microbiome”, which means all the micro-organisms and all the genes in our digestive tract, is at a fairly early stage. According to Dr David Perlmutter, author of Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain – for Life, 90 percent of the peer-reviewed literature on the gut microbiome has only been published in the past five years.
Maybe it’s not surprising that many people still fear bacteria, because much of the success of modern medicine – certainly in the 20th century – has been due to the development of bacteria-killing antibiotics.
Antibiotics have helped us eradicate many of the terrible diseases and epidemics of the past, as well as reducing child mortality rates enormously.
But in the “developed world” we are seeing new epidemics. Rates of childhood asthma, allergies, obesity and auto-immune diseases like irritable bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis, where the body appears to attack itself, have exploded in the past few decades.
Scientific research indicates that the overuse of antibiotics could be at the root of many of these modern epidemics.
Antibiotics: a double-edged sword?
Antibiotics are designed to wipe out pathogenic bacteria, but in doing so they can also wipe out colonies of non-pathogenic bacteria whose importance we are only just beginning to understand. Bacteria that might normally dampen down an auto-immune attack or produce enzymes to help us digest cow’s milk can be eliminated by a course of strong antibiotics.
Sometimes it’s essential to take a course of antibiotics. I took them for three weeks when I had Lyme Disease. But their over-prescription, sometimes for conditions caused by viruses that are immune to antibiotics, is having devastating consequences, as bacteria are starting to mutate and develop resistance to antibiotics.
Thousands of people have died from C.diff (Clostridium difficile) and MRSA, which stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Even some of the epidemic diseases of the past, like tuberculosis, are developing antibiotic-resistant strains.
One possible solution, discussed by Dr Martin Blaser in his brilliant and alarming book Missing Microbes: How Killing Bacteria Creates Modern Plagues, is for doctors to prescribe more narrow-spectrum antibiotics, which would target the specific bacteria that are causing the disease – as opposed to broad-spectrum antibiotics, which target several different types of bacteria.
This is not as straightforward as it might seem. The doctor would have to be very certain about the diagnosis of the disease, which isn’t always possible. Also, the cost of producing narrow-spectrum antibiotics is much higher than the cost of producing broad-spectrum antibiotics.
Blaser suggests that a concerted public effort might be needed to fund development of these types of antibiotics, which could be the best hope of saving humanity from a new surge of deadly epidemics. Maybe this could be achieved via crowdfunding programmes, if enough people wake up to the threat and are prepared to do something about it.
On a more optimistic note, the discoveries that scientists are making about our friendly bacteria are offering hope for new ways to treat illness and disease. Incredibly exciting possibilities lie ahead – although most of this research is still at a tantalisingly early stage.
For example, research conducted on twins in 2014 showed that lean individuals were more likely to have higher levels of the bacterial family Christensenellaceae. The researchers then implanted some Christensenella minuta (cultured members of the Christensenellaceae family) into mice, and found that weight gain slowed in the implanted mice.
But can this actually be replicated in humans? If so, would the effects be long-term – and would there be any side-effects?
Another study conducted in 2014 found that Clostridia, a class of bacteria commonly found in the gut, protects against food allergies – including the peanut allergy.
But curing these often deadly food allergies may be more complex than simply popping a probiotic containing the required bacteria. Some bacteria do not survive for long outside the body. And other factors could be involved.
Even though the research is in the early stages, these findings are to be welcomed. There are so many exciting new discoveries being made about the human microbiome, and there are many things you can do to improve the health of yours.
Learn more about your gut
Probiotics and prebiotics are foods that can be taken to grow more friendly bacteria in your gut. Many foods act as probiotics or prebiotics, or you can buy them in chemists or pharmacies as food supplements.
Identifying which probiotic(s) you need to take is another matter. If you don’t want to go by trial and error, you could have your microbiome analysed. The British Gut Project and the American Gut Project are crowdfunded scientific research projects which allow you to have the contents of your gut analysed for a fee, which goes towards conducting research.
Or you could use a microbiome sequencing service like uBiome, which operates worldwide. Some people have their gut sequenced before and after medical treatment, to find out what effect the treatment might have had on their gut microbes.