Since the invention of the microscope and the discovery of penicillin mankind has seen bacteria as some form of enemy to be destroyed. Whilst it is true that some bacteria do cause infection, this is actually a relatively small number compared to the bacteria, which do no harm or indeed help us.
In fact the body needs good bacteria for good health. A healthy intestine needs to have around two kilograms (four pounds) of good bacteria to help with the absorption of food. Other parts of the body like the skin, throat and female genital tract also rely on good bacteria. When they are gone problems arise.
For example when women get thrush (yeast infection) after a course of antibiotics it is due to the loss of good bacteria from the vagina. When people get diarrhoea after a course of antibiotics, again it is due to loss of good bacteria. Antibiotic associated diarrhoea is a growing problem with an estimated 350,000 cases and 20,000 deaths each year from this in the USA.
Indiscriminate use of antibiotics is largely to blame for this. We have used antibiotics when we have viral illnesses and seen these medications as having no downside. Use of antibiotics in agriculture is another major problem. The movie Food Inc. showed this clearly. Cattle are fed corn instead of grass, which is their usual food. Giving them the wrong diet, changes the ph of the cattle’s gut making it easier for “bad” bacteria like E.Coli to breed. The animals are then given antibiotics to kill the bacteria.
You would think it is a lot simpler to just let the cattle eat grass in the first place.
There is another contributor to the loss of good bacteria from our intestines and another set of problems this causes. The increase in inflammatory conditions such as asthma and eczema over the last 40 years has not occurred equally across the globe. It mainly occurs in those eating a western diet high in sugars and processed foods and low in vegetables.
A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at the gut bacteria of children in Europe compared to rural Africa. It found that there was little difference at birth but that by the time they were eating the local diet the African children, had not only more bacteria but a much greater variety as well.
In addition the European children had higher numbers of bacteria associated with diarrhoea, whilst the Africans had more species linked to the production of helpful compounds like short chain fatty acids which help suppress inflammation.
Ultimately the study concluded that healthy levels of good bacteria not only kept out “bad” bacteria but also, of themselves, may help reduce disease through the production of helpful compounds. Gut bacteria have a role in the workings of the immune system.
It is therefore not surprising that inflammatory conditions, which are due to some “malfunction” of the immune system, are more common where gut bacteria have been reduced. Putting in good bacteria is easier than treating long term disease. It is a bit sad that this sort of research is not in medical journals. I suppose that is because there is much more money to be made in finding expensive patentable treatments.
The good news then, is that much can be done to improve this. Cut down on processed foods and increase your intake of real food such as fruits, vegetables and legumes. Seek out grass fed meats. Consider taking a probiotic.
Let your children get a little bit dirty at times and do not feel the need to sanitize every square inch of the house constantly due to fear of “germs” when in fact we actually are killing the good bacteria which we need. Yes keep your house clean but not sterile. We are (re) learning that exposure to dirt is actually important for children as part of the development of the immune system.
Once again this shows that the solution to preventing much illness lies in fairly simple measures which essentially are about supporting the body doing what it really wants to do – which is to be healthy.