When you think about bacteria in relation to health, what do you think about? If you're like most people, you probably think about illness, disease, and the need for medical attention. That's for a good reason. There are a lot of bacteria out there that can make us sick and we've come a long way in medicine in the treatment of bacterial illness.
The thing is, there is so much more to this story. I can't tell you how many times I see someone for what seems like a viral illness and they suggest treatment with antibiotics because, "it's better to be safe than sorry." Sure, I get it, but first we should probably define what it means to be safe.
When I think about bacteria in relation to health, I picture a complex ecosystem that lives in symbiosis on and within the human body. There are 100 trillion non-human microorganisms that live on the skin's surface and throughout the body's gastrointestinal system. Our human genes are outnumbered 100 to 1 and our human cells are outnumbered 10 to 1 by these microorganisms. From the perspective of DNA, we are more microbial than we are human.
The microbiome, the complete environment of microbes that colonize the human body, is a basic and essential part of human physiology. If you look closely, it appears that much of what makes us human actually depends on the activity of these microbes that live alongside our human cells. Microbes support the body by digesting food, synthesizing nutrients and chemicals, and preventing other unwanted pathogens from entering the body and creating illness.
The presence or absence of bacteria in the digestive system has been associated with obesity, inflammatory bowel diseases, and management of the harmful side effects of prescription drugs. Some of the chemicals produced by the microbiome are the same substances used by our nervous system to regulate mood. These include dopamine, serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). If they sound familiar, it's probably because these are the target neurotransmitters for many medications that treat depression and anxiety. There is a huge correlation between intestinal disorders and high levels of depression and anxiety, as well as autism and hyperactivity. It seems promising that medicine in the future may use microbes to diagnose and treat neurologic disorders and even mental illness.
The study of the microbiome is pretty new on the scene, and there's a lot more research that needs to be done before direct therapies are applied. We need to learn how adjusting our chemical exposure through diet, lifestyle and environment can shape the complex ecosystems that are our bodies. With that said, there are some good lessons we can learn based on the information we already have.
I believe that less exposure to antibacterial agents through prescription medications, cleaning supplies, pesticides and our food supply is a good place to start. More exposure to minimally processed, local and organic fruit and vegetables and spending time in the dirt can only help. You can also increase exposure to beneficial bacteria by ingesting fermented foods with live bacterial cultures. These include kombucha (more on that another time), sauerkraut, kimchee, yogurt (plain without sugar or artificial sweeteners) and probiotics.
To me, this is such a beautiful example of symbiosis within an ecosystem. It also translates really well to life on planet earth. In order to thrive as a living being and a species we need to learn to live in balance with all that is around us. Start inside yourself. Love your guts...I sure do.