Throughout my training and most of my career as a physician, the prevailing belief in medicine told us bacteria are pathogenic, create health problems and must be eradicated. For decades, this idea has driven us as a society to rely on prescription drug use in a way that is excessive and downright harmful. The notion that "we" must destroy "them" has underscored our choices fueling fears that in the end have left us with an ocean of health conditions all linked to the destruction of the gut microbiome.
The irony here is that "we" actually are "them". Research has shown that there are possibly 10 times more bacteria within each of us than there are human cells. Incredibly, the total number of genes in the microbiome outnumbers human genes by a factor of at least 200. This means their genes, and the expression of these genes can change the way our own bodies function-and quickly. Maintaining a healthy balance of bacteria then is paramount to our own good health and ability to thrive.
Are bacteria good or bad?
We are at the dawn of a new understanding that there is a place for everything. Even what was once thought to be the most virulent, has some benefit when we change the context. Bacteria in and of themselves are neither good nor bad. It's how they work together that determines if they have a positive or negative effect. The balance of different communities, types and quantities is the key factor. This idea is groundbreaking, literally shattering everything we have been told in the past.
Take H-pylori for example. Humans have been colonized by this bacterium for more than 100,000 years suggesting some benefit as it's continued presence has been selected throughout our evolution (2). While linked to stomach cancer and gastritis, research is finding it may play a protective role against GERD, asthma and esophageal disease. Hunger and satiety signals are possibly regulated by H. pylori helping to curb appetite and avoid overeating. Today 50% of the population worldwide will contract H. pylori, most of which never develop disease. In those that do, it is quite likely that bacterial imbalance is at the root, triggering H. pylori to become overgrown, creating symptoms (1).
It is important to consider that our relationship with these beings is ancient and complex. We simply don't know all of the intricate ways the whole works together or the long-term implications of permanently wiping out these strains considered to be pathogenic. Rather than working from the perspective of destroying them, it may be more prudent to take steps to harbor a healthful and balanced bacterial ecosystem where the benefits out way the possible problems.
The importance of maintaining a positive bacterial balance.
The microbes of the intestine are constantly at work supporting and protecting our health. When they are healthy, diverse, balanced and thriving, we reap the benefits. Bacteria perform many key functions such as:
• Sustain the health of the intestine
• Strengthening the gut wall and promoting intestinal healing
• Promote healthy digestion
• Regulate caloric extraction from foods
• Digest foods that we cannot like certain types of fiber and even lactose
• Educate and regulate the immune system
• Modulate inflammation
• Regulate mood and promote mental clarity
• Synthesize critical nutrients for human use like Vitamin K,C, B12, biotin, folate, butyrate and natural antibiotics
• Modulate gene expression
Over medicated, out of balance.
A study from 2015 found a single course of antibiotics was enough to alter normal composition of gut bacteria for as long as a year (3). Healthy diversity was reduced, beneficial strains declined and the drugs supported genes for antibiotic resistance. This study was not an anomaly. There have been many papers published supporting these same ideas and it is not just confined to antibiotic use. Heartburn medication called Proton pump inhibitors are one of the most over-prescribed drugs today and absolutely wreak havoc on both human health and the health of intestinal bacteria. NSAIDS are another such drug.
Of course there are situations where antibiotic use is justified and necessary but I have found the conventional medical community to be guilty of gross overprescription of these drugs. Patients are often given prescriptions for cold and flu when the reality is viral infections don't respond to this treatment. Antibiotics are frequently used preventatively, with doctors saying that it can't hurt-but it can. In many cases there are natural alternatives that spare gut bacteria. Diet and lifestyle changes can heal the underlying issue in many cases making medication unnecessary. It is time to consider the actual need and greater picture when making the decision to prescribe or take these drugs.
(Don't) Let them eat cake!
Unfortunately, medications aren't the only thing that negatively impact microbial communities. The #1 effector is diet and lifestyle. Nothing is more important than maintaining a healthful way of eating every day that will feed and energize the beneficial strains. Processed foods with high sugar and fat content will not support helpful bacterial strains and it won't enrich human existence either. Plants, fiber, prebiotic foods, fermented foods-this is the recipe to succeed in supporting your health and theirs.
As a physician, my passion lies in caring for people helping them to achieve optimal health. To do so, I work very closely with the trillions of tiny patients within each person I meet. Only by considering the entire population and understanding the deep implications, can we find true health. Bacteria are our greatest allies. It's time to treat them as such.
For more information about the trillions of bacteria the live within us, please join myself, Deepak Chopra, MD, David Perlmutter, MD, Mark Hyman, MD, Joseph Mercola, MD and more who will be presenting ground-breaking and life-changing information during the first-ever Microbiome Medicine Summit.
1)Mishra S. Eur J Clin Microbiol Infect Dis. 2013 Mar; 32(3):301-4.
2 Blaser, Martin J. Who are we? Indigenous microbes and the ecology of human diseases EMBO reports 7 (10): 956-60.
3) Zaura E. Same Exposure but Two Radically Different Responses to Antibiotics: Resilience of the Salivary Microbiome versus Long-Term Microbial Shifts in Feces. mBio.01693-15, 10 November 2015 mBio vol. 6 no. 6