Your Health Depends on Beneficial Bacteria

How overuse of antibiotics and germ phobia may contribute to our most serious health problems.

We are more bacteria than human. More “other” than ourselves. It’s true. Bacteria cells in our bodies outnumber human cells by 10 to 1.

Scientists are just now discovering the role that the beneficial bacteria in our bodies play in governing how our bodies react to food, regulating appetite and digestion, and enhancing immunity to a host of chronic diseases. An article in May’s Scientific American (synopsis here) outlined the incredible diversity of the microbial systems living within us (our microbiome) and told how scientists are mapping the DNA of these bacteria to discover the important role microbiomes play in our health.

We’re pretty much sterile in the womb, only beginning to build our rich bacterial inner lives as we pass through the birth canal. Another early source of bacteria for infants is through their mothers’ milk and through interacting with family members, pets, and the world around them. Compared to two generations ago, children today have a deficit of beneficial bacteria in their bodies. The reasons for this include the increase in Cesarean births, formula feeding, antibacterial soaps and hand-sanitizers, and the prescription of antibiotics for childhood infections. Other possible reasons include the overuse of antibiotics in both human medicine and animal agriculture, and our modern American diet.

As scientists discover the specific roles some of the bacteria play in regulating functions such as digestion and appetite, they are beginning to hypothesize that a deficit in beneficial bacteria may be the cause of many of our modern health problems including obesity, food sensitivities and allergies, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and even cancer.

For example, the bacteria, H. pylori regulates the hormones that govern hunger. In studies, people who lack the bacteria due to treatment with antibiotics gain more weight. According to Scientific American, less than 6% of American children have H. pylori in their bodies now, while 2 to 3 generations ago, 80% of Americans had it, corresponding with the generational rise in obesity.

The article also talks about another bacteria called B. thetaiotaomicron, which coaxes nutrients out of indigestible carbohydrates like whole grains. A deficit of B. thetaiotaomicron can create problems with digestion that lead to serious illness, and may be behind the rise in autoimmune disorders. Nishanga Bliss, Master of Science in Traditional Chinese Medicine, licensed acupuncturist, and author of the book, Real Food All Year, on the benefits of eating seasonally from both a Chinese and Western medicine perspective, explains how this works.

“When your body doesn’t get the nutrients it needs from food, it sets up an inflammatory cascade through your systems, and this can contribute to a lot of our chronic diseases including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and autoimmune disorders.” Bliss goes on to tell EcoSalon, “About a decade ago, scientists started to figure out that inflammation is a factor in all of these diseases. At current rates, one in five people will be diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder within their lifetimes.”

Bliss adds that a lack of beneficial bacteria in the gut is likely the cause of many food allergies and sensitivities, which cause inflammation in the body that can lead to disease.

“Your body shouldn’t have an immune response to food unless it’s bad. It’s the microbiome’s job to tell your body not to freak out about the food you eat.” Without a healthy, balanced microbiome “your body attacks the food, causing an allergic response and inflammation,” Bliss says.

So what are five things you can do to make sure your microbiome stays healthy and keeps you healthy?

1. Eat Foods That Contribute to a Healthy Microbiome

These include fermented foods such as sauerkraut, fermented pickles, kimchi, yogurt, and a modest amount of beer or wine, and sourdough bread (even cooked fermented foods like sourdough have a positive impact on digestion according to Bliss). She also recommends fiber rich foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans. The reason is because beneficial bacteria feast on these foods to make them digestible to our bodies. In turn, they gain nourishment and increase in numbers, said Bliss.

2. Stop Sanitizing

Lose the hand-sanitizer unless you’re in a dangerous or particularly dirty situation or working with an immune compromised individual. Soap and water are plenty effective for everyday hand washing. If we make our environments too sterile, our bodies won’t be able to handle stronger bugs they might come into contact with.

3. Use Antibiotics Sparingly and Replenish Gut Flora

Don’t take antibiotics unless you know you have an infection. If you do take them, make sure you finish your course so as not to create resistant survivors. Always up your intake of fermented foods to rebalance your gut flora. Bliss says go straight to food sources as the probiotic capsules available in health food stores, though perfectly fine, are made from fermented foods anyway.

4. Urge Regulators to Prohibit the Routine Use of Antibiotics in Agriculture

The overuse of antibiotics in healthy animals to make them grow faster or help them withstand the filthy conditions on factory farms is a growing problem that we talked about recently. This practice could be leading to drug resistant superbugs, and their residues might be finding their way into us, killing our good bacteria and affecting our health.

Industry representatives contend that meat and milk are routinely tested for antibiotic residues and that it isn’t a problem in our food supply. However, testing data from dairy cows presented here from 2008 show that scheduled inspections included only 1,099 of the 2.7 million dairy cows slaughtered for meat in total – less than half a percent. Inspector generated sampling, on the other hand, targets animals with signs of disease or animals from producers with questionable histories. In 2008, inspector generated sampling covered 80,131 dairy cows – still fewer than 3% of all dairy cows slaughtered for meat. But, 788 cows tested positive for a wide range of drugs, with many testing positive for more than one type.

5. Join Fix Food’s Campaign to Get the Drugs Out of Our Meat

In the absence of real regulation by FDA, a new campaign launched by Fix Food goes straight to consumers, asking them sign a petition demanding that Trader Joes sell meat raised without antibiotics. Robert Kenner, Director of Food Inc., is on the board, so you can see more of his great work in the video announcing the campaign.

Images: kaibara, AlegnaMarie, BeinKorean

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.