The Good Side of Bacteria

In the 20th century antibiotics seemed on the verge of conquering bacterial infections forever. Lives were saved, children lived on to adulthood, illnesses were shortened, and science proved a bright future. That is until a new reality crept in. Recent research points to a new actuality; there are good and bad bacteria in the human body.

Microorganisms live on and inhabit the body, and they may constitute up to three pounds of total body weight. Bacteria, viruses, some fungi and parasites form a natural balance called the microbiome. While parasites, fungi and viruses can be very problematic, bacteria rarely cause disease and are needed for good health — they're the body's helpers.

These invisible creatures are an original life form that has co-evolved with all animals in existence today, including humans. A single cell, yet incredibly complex form of life, bacteria coexist in the environment inside and outside of the bodies of all animals. Their DNA is not enclosed in a nucleus, yet they are considered to be "true cells."

Bad bacteria are pathogenic. When we fall ill these bacteria compete with the good bacteria, over produce and often invade body tissues. Some may emit toxins. Salmonella and Escherichia coli are notorious causes of food poisoning. Helicobacter pylori has in recent years proven to play a large role in gastritis and ulcers. Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcal bacteria are at the root of many infections.

There are, on average, 100 trillion individual bacterium in a healthy adult. As science learns more, we are finding that normal bacteria aid in digestion and vitamin production and fight pathogenic bacteria. A recent federal study, the Human Microbiome Project, inventoried the bacterial microbiome of 250 healthy individuals. Their landmark findings showed that any individual could have as many as a thousand different bacteria strains in their body, and each microbiome varies.

We are gaining understanding of what a healthy bacterial balance is, and it's proving to be of great value to the medical community. Antibiotics kill bad and good bacteria, upsetting the microbiome's balance, and there is a growing concern about what that does. Imbalances may disrupt immunity function and contribute to chronic illness.

Writing for WebMD, Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, explains, "Your body needs to have a healthy amount of ‘good' bacteria in the digestive tract." She recommends yogurt with active good bacteria in the diet. This "probiotic" food contains "living organisms" that promote health. Registered dietitians at WebMD say to maintain and restore a balanced microbiome, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. For their good bacteria content, they recommend fermented foods and dairy products.

Many health advocates are beginning to recommend probiotic supplements (live good bacteria). In theory, adding to the body's bacterial microbiome should be a good thing, but what's needed is more conclusive research. The news is especially encouraging for sufferers of gastrointestinal disorders — where bacteria do most of their work.

A recent study at Penn State found a truce between the immune system and "commensal bacteria," that is to say the good bacteria. When the truce is broken and the immune system attacks the good bacteria, the body becomes more susceptible to chronic diseases. Examples cited include bowel disorders, diabetes, heart disease, and chronic inflammations. Researchers believe that understanding the relationship between immunity and bacteria is key to the treatment of many disorders.

In a Scientific American article by Jennifer Ackerman, she reports that we used to believe we were "phys ­iological islands" and completely self-sufficient. The body is now seen as a "complex ecosystem" of microbes that assists in "basic physiological processes."

The National Library of Medicine, under the National Institutes of Health (NIH), identifies Bifidobacteria as a group of bacteria that live in normal intestinal tracks. Because we can grow it outside the body, it can be "taken by mouth as medicine" for diarrhea and other intestinal problems. As a probiotic, it may be able to restore a good balance after bacteria-killing antibiotic use, including chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Other possible uses include: treating skin conditions, flu symptoms, lactose intolerance, Lyme disease, mastitis, yeast infections and even cancer.

We must do more research to determine if the microbiome and its role in good health will lead to a panacea. The good news is that science is on to something. It's time to take some good common sense measures. Being aware of what affects the microbiome and how to hopefully restore and maintain balance will prove another step forward in healthcare.


Local Health
Microbe World
NIH – Common Fund
New York Times
Web MD
University of Pennsylvania
Scientific American
Wikipedia – Probiotics
MedLine Plus

About the Author:
Iris Stone has worked as a freelance writer since 2011. Her writing has included content on medicine, healthcare, and education, although her interests are wide and varied. Prior to breaking into the freelance biz, Iris worked in sales for a health company and prior to that as an assistant in a chiropractic office. She is currently attending George Mason University and is majoring in Political Science. Check out her Google+ profile.

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