Bacteria: The Guardians of Health

Dr. Hanna Ian

Microorganisms are the oldest life form on earth.  They are everywhere and they are numerous.  The weight of all microbial life on earth is 25 times greater than all animal life.   Not only have humans evolved in the presence of bacteria, our health is greatly dependent on maintaining harmony and equilibrium with the microorganisms living on us and in us. 

We interact daily with our bacterial neighbors in many ways.  The food we eat, the air we breathe, the lifestyle we chose and the medication we take – all influence the types, the number and the balance of these microorganisms.  This balance is crucial to optimal health and the prevention of disease.  In most instances bacteria and other microorganisms living in the body are not harmful and are greatly valued in the way they support digestion and absorption of foods, manufacture vitamins, assist with energy, as well as maintain and educate our immune system. 

Many bacterial species have evolved to peacefully co-exist within our gastrointestinal track.  There are more than 400 species of bacteria, each with numerous strains, living harmoniously in the human gut.  The amount of bacteria present in the GI track is vast and outnumbers our human cells 10 to one.  In fact there is 100 times more bacterial DNA within us than human DNA.  Simply put, beneficial bacteria are the guardians of the human body. 

The multitudes of bacteria do not live in isolation from each other, but create diverse and cooperative colonies called “biofilms.”   Collectively the bacterial films are called the biome.  This thick, vibrant and viable film benefits the body in several ways; it prevents harmful opportunistic bacteria and fungus from colonizing the gut, it enhances the immune system’s ability to fight off invading microorganisms, and it has significant anti-infective, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial activity.  The beneficial biome produces enzymes that assist with detoxification and it also manufactures some of the B vitamins as well as vitamin K.  Of great importance is the role it plays in preventing disease with anti-tumor and anti-mutagenic actions not to mention creating a strong and resilient barrier from the outside world.

Diseases of the GI track arise when the protective layer is disrupted, damaged or lost completely.  Gastroesophageal reflux disease, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease and even colorectal cancer are all examples of disorders that originate with the loss of beneficial gut bacteria.   But the spectrum of disease is not limited to the GI track alone.  The loss of the biome also causes dysregulation of the immune system contributing to asthma and eczema as well as the autoimmune diseases rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Grave’s disease.  Even the spectrum of autistic disorders is now associated with the demise of beneficial gut bacteria.  

100 years ago these diseases were unheard of or exceptionally rare, yet today they represent the majority of infirmities patients bring to their doctor.   Studies consistently point to two emerging trends in modern society responsible for the destruction of the biome and the diseases that follow; a dramatic change in the types of food consumed and the widespread use of antibiotics. 

Historically humans have grown and developed from a diet high in complex carbohydrates from whole grain, fruit and vegetable sources.  A plant-rich diet is exceptionally high in fiber with its complement of essential fatty acids, micro and macronutrients and a balanced pH.   The last 100 years have brought a dramatic increase in the number of calories consumed from refined, processed and “industry” foods with over half of all carbohydrates consumed originating from table sugar and corn syrups.   In comparison with our ancestral diet, processed foods have tremendous alterations in micronutrient/ macronutrient and fatty acid composition, pH balance and above all, fiber.  The composition of the “Standard American Diet” (SAD) has a detrimental impact on the environment in which the beneficial bacteria reside.  In order to grow and thrive, the biome requires a colonic environment high in fiber, low in sugar and with a balanced pH. 

While antibiotics are effective against bacterial infections, they don’t work against viruses.  By the age of 18, the average child in the US has received over 15 courses of antibiotics, the majority inappropriately prescribed for viral infections. The widespread use of antibiotics in the food-chain and the inappropriate use of antibiotics for viral infection is not only killing off the beneficial biome, it is also creating “superbugs” that in turn cannot be killed by antibiotics.

The World Health Organization, in attempting to combat antimicrobial resistant bacterial strains, has issued warnings about antibiotic overuse.  The Centers for Disease Control as well as the Academy of Pediatrics have issued guidelines for when to use (and when to not use) antibiotics for the most common pediatric respiratory infections.   Nevertheless, according to the Journal of Family Practice and the Journal of the American Medical Association up to 60 % of children and adults with common colds are treated inappropriately with antibiotics.  Why does this happen?  As reported in Pediatrics, antibiotics are the most commonly requested drug patients and parents ask of their physicians. 

Your best defense in the prevention of a host of diseases is maintaining the beneficial biome.  Your best offense against viral infections during cold and flu season as well as bacterial infections is your own immune system.    So, if the best offense is a good defense, keep the beneficial bacteria on you and in you alive and well.