Why bacteria are vital to our health

bacteriaVitality and health are not words most people associate with bacteria. Yet, our gut contains more than 100 trillion bacteria; in fact our body contains 10 times more bacteria than body cells. Stanford University biologist Justin Sonnenburg called the human body ‘an elaborate vessel optimized for the growth and spread of our microbial inhabitants.’ Whether you want it or not, bacteria are essential for our health and without them, we wouldn’t exist.


Gut flora

The gut flora has a range of functions including gastrointestinal function, metabolic regulation, the production of some vitamins and combating harmful microorganisms. It also plays a major role in our immune system, performing a barrier effect. A dysregulated gut flora has been linked to a host of different diseases including Hashimoto’s, inflammatory bowel disease, type 1 diabetes, depression and autism. Research shows, that non-westernized cultures, harbor beneficial bacteria in their gut that are non-existent in Western society. It also shows that our Western guts contain bacteria colonies that are absent in primitive cultures, and are linked to modern disease. A flip side of modern society is the number of unnatural threats we are exposed to. There are many factors that can disrupt our microbiome.

One of the biggest threats to the diversity and balance of bacterial composition in our gut is the use of antibiotics. In fact, the gut is unlikely to recover from repeated use of antibiotics without active intervention (e.g. adding probiotics to our diet). Because the use of antibiotics is sometimes inevitable, it is combine and follow the antibiotics cure by consuming a high quality pro-biotic. But antibiotics are not the only threat to your gut microbiome. Other threats include drugs, pain killers, a diet high on refined carbohydrates, processed foods and sugar, wheat, industrial seed oil, advanced sanitation and chronic stress. And undoubtedly we are exposed to many other chemical substances that can influence our microbiome.

Natural birth, skin contact and breast milk

Although recent research shows that babies are already exposed to bacteria in the womb, it is colonized by additional bacterial colonies as soon as the baby is born. Because, in case of a natural birth, the baby is exposed to the mother’s bacteria, many of the baby’s gut microbes are already acquired in this early stage. Because birth through C-section is a much more sterile process, this can potentially lead to allergy, asthma as well as autoimmune problems. After birth, additional bacterial colonies are introduced to the baby through contact with the mother’s skin and through breast feeding. Interestingly, the bacterial make up of breast milk seems to different among┬ámothers, depending at least partly on the mother’s diet. From an evolutionary perspective this could make sense as the offspring would grow up in the same natural environment as the mother, and be exposed to the same local foods.

Now that we understand the importance of microbial exposure during childhood, one could question the benefits of increased sanitation. A good example is the polio epidemy in the early 1900’s. Polio was more prevalent among children growing up in wealthy families.┬áThe cleaner your surroundings were, the more likely you were to get the worst form of polio.

A leaky gut

Besides a disturbed balance of gut bacteria, many people suffer from another severe problem in the gut: increased gut permeability or a ‘leaky gut’. Because of this increased permeability, big protein molecules that normally are unable to penetrate the gut barrier, can now enter the blood stream. As a consequence, these molecules are attacked by our own defense system. More and more research links gut permeability to the development of auto immune disease. So it’s important to know what actually can cause a leaky gut.

Researchers have identified a protein called zonulin, to increase the permeability of the gut in both humans and animals. Interestingly, most auto immune diseased have found to go hand in hand with abnormally high zonulin levels and a leaky gut. Additional research shows that gliadin, a protein in gluten containing grains, increases the production of zonulin. You might therefore consider to stop your consumption of gluten, especially when auto immune disease (this includes celiac disease, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease) is present in your family.

In order to heal your gut or prevent it from getting damaged, try to limit your intake of substances that mess up your microbiome. This includes gluten, medication (also birth control and pain killers), refined carbohydrates, sugars, processed foods and industrial seed oils. Add fermented foods like yoghurt, kefir and sauerkraut to your diet or consider a high quality probiotic supplement. Avoid stress and eat plenty of fermentable fibers.

Categories: Evolution, Food, Health

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