Bacteria- Friend or Foe?

For many years we thought that bacteria were bad and we should do whatever we can to kill or remove them from our bodies.  We tend to fear bacteria as a cause of illness and the marketing departments of companies have taken advantage of this to sell us so many antibacterial products.  Last week I saw an advertisement for antibacterial underwear for heaven’s sake!  Despite all this advertising, recent research has shown us that the truth is much more complicated. In fact, all of us have trillions; yes trillions, of bacteria living on us and inside us.  While it may be hard to believe, there are more bacterial cells on and inside us than we have human cells in our own bodies!  So, in a real sense we are actually what biologists call “super organisms”, a collective of different species working and living together.  This is not an accident; it is a result of millions of years of coevolution. These bacteria are essential for our health and we would die without them.

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As technology improves to allow scientists to study the countless bacteria found on and inside our bodies, new studies are published every day that show us that the interaction of our immune system with bacterial cells is essential for healthy living, and imbalances of bacteria can cause many common diseases.  For example, during normal vaginal delivery, mothers give their newborn babies the first “dose” of healthy fecal bacteria. These bacteria are needed to allow the newborn infant to properly digest and adsorb the nutrients in food, and to encourage healthy development of her immune system. The disturbances of bowel bacteria in infants born by C-Section can persist for at least six months.  Similarly, the skin and glands around the mother’s nipples are full of a variety of bacteria that are essential for the infant to gain the full benefits of breast milk.  Observational studies report that infants born by C-Section tend to have higher rates of eczema, asthma, Type-1 diabetes, celiac disease and allergies, probably because they lack these essential bacteria. Keep in mind that about 30% of infants in the US are born by C-Section, and the rate in Thailand is probably about the same.  Very high rates of C-Section and low rates of breastfeeding could explain the rapid increase in these diseases that we see in children today.

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Obviously, this all has implications for our use of antibiotics but I will cover that in a future post.  For now, I encourage you to read some of the articles I have highlighted here and to think twice before buying antibacterial products.  There is no evidence that they prevent infection, they often cost more, and they may well make us less healthy in the long run.  And remember that the vast majority of bacteria is not only harmless; many are essential to our well-being.

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