The Importance of Good Bacteria

April 28, 2013

Antibacterial soaps, wipes, and sprays are everywhere – next to the grocery carts, in classrooms, and atop kitchen and bathroom sinks. Americans are practically obsessed with avoiding bacteria and germs at every turn. We have good reason to be afraid, dangerous antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria like MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus) are on the rise. We need to avoid and wipe out bacteria if we want to stay healthy, right?  Not so fast….not all bacteria are bad, in fact – we need plenty of good bacteria to stay healthy.  When we try to wipe them all out, we create problems – ranging from resistant bacteria to weight gain and more.

Antibacterials Backfiring

According to this article in Scientific American, scientists have discovered that soaps and gels with antibacterial chemicals might actually be creating more resistant bacteria, which in the end could make us much sicker.  Some studies also show that antibacterial agents not only inhibit bacteria, but they could also inhibit enzymes and hormones, which according to this University of Florida article, could be dangerous to a fetus. 

Bacteria & Our Weight 

One more powerful reason to improve your inner ecosystem is the fact that our weight is closely connected to type of bacteria in our guts.  According to this New York Time article, “the bacterial makeup of the intestines may help determine whether people gain weight or lose it, according to two new studies.”  These studies found that as much as 20% of the weight loss from gastric bypass surgery might be connected to a shift in gut bacteria.  The reason could be that bacteria is closely tied to our hormones like insulin and leptin, which affect our body’s ability to process sugars, regulate appetite, and our energy. So rather than taking such drastic measures to lose weight, perhaps more and more people will be looking to change their gut balance with probiotics and fermented foods and drinks.

The Connection to Heart Disease

Bacteria has been in the news in the past several weeks.  Two recently published studies have linked heart disease to gut bacteria.  According to this article in the New York Times, researchers have found that foods (like eggs and meat) that contain lecithin, carnitine, and choline can interact with certain intestinal bacteria to increase the risk of heart attacks. When these compounds are metabolized by the intestinal bacteria, a substance is released that the liver converts to a chemical known as TMAO (trimethylamine N-oxide). Elevated blood levels of TMAO are linked to increased risk of stroke and heart attack. “Heart disease perhaps involves microbes in our gut,” said the study’s lead researcher, Dr. Stanley Hazen, chairman of the department of cellular and molecular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute. ”  In both studies, the subjects were given antibiotics, and the risk went down.  But as soon as the antibiotics were stopped, the risk returned. But since it neither healthy nor practical to take antibiotics continually, the studies both suggested either avoidance of the particular trigger foods, or people could take probiotics to change the bacteria in their intestines.  Dr. Joseph Loscalzo of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston suggested that people might take probiotics to help grow bacteria that do not lead to an increase in TMAO. More research is needed in this area.

Mood and our “Second Brain”

Sometimes referred to as our second brain, our guts are responsible for manufacturing important mood neurotransmitters like serotonin, referred to as “the happiness hormone.”  Over 70% of our serotonin is found in our guts, so it makes absolute sense that our moods are tied to the balance of bacteria in our digestive system.  According to this Scientific American article, there is a direct correlation between our mood and our gut bacteria, and it could also be related to osteoporosis and autism.

Factory Farming’s Role

Another thing that is creating resistant bacteria is factory farmed meats and other animal proteins. Animals raised in factory farms are regularly given a continual supply of low dose antibiotics to prevent and reverse diseases that are passed between the animals living in their own filth.  When we eat factory farmed proteins, we are inadvertantly consuming those antibiotics.  So consuming non-organic meats and dairy is kind of like taking a low dose antibiotic.  This is creating a dangerous situation. According to this article in the Organic Authority, and Rodale, MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) “kills about 18,000 people a year in the United States—that’s more than AIDS. Gonorrhea is also on the verge of being untreatable, and many common antibiotics no longer cure urinary tract infections. There is a better way to win the war against bad bacteria – and that is to boost the good bacteria with probiotics and fermented foods and drinks.”

We are bacterial

Our bodies are teeming with over 3 million bacteria, which amounts to about 3 pounds of bacteria in our guts alone!!  Over 90% of the cells in our bodies are actually bacteria. Some of those bacteria are “good guys” and others are “bad guys.” A balanced inner ecosystem can mean good digestion, better immunity, improved mood, and even a healthy weight.  In Eastern and Integrative medicine philosophies, optimal health can not occur in conjunction with digestive problems.  According Hippocrates, the father of medicine, “all disease begins in the gut.”

According to this article, “a healthy lower intestine should contain at least 85% friendly bacteria to prevent the over-colonization of microorganisms like E. coli and salmonella. Our bodies can sustain healthy states with 15% bad bacteria, but unfortunately most have the balance inverted.  The human body should have 20 times more beneficial bacteria than cells to maintain a healthy intestinal tract and help fight illness and disease.”

The Digestive and Immune Systems

Probiotics are probably best known for their impact on the digestive system.  But studies show that probiotics could be a powerful tool in the fight against illness.  Probiotics were shown to boost the bodies’ immune response to help it fight off certain infectious agents and inflammatory conditions.  According to this article in Natural News, taking certain probiotic strains can boost the body’s immune response to invaders.  Probiotics boost the good bacteria in the digestive system, which can prevent and treat many gastrointestinal disorders including IBS, constipation, diarrhea, inflammatory bowel disease, and reflux. They might even help to combat bad breath, fibromyalgia and diabetes according to this article in the Daily Mail and this article from Dr. Mercola.  Probiotics have also been shown to protect against: food & skin allergies, recurrent ear & bladder infections, vaginitis, and premature labor  according to Dr. Mercola.

Fight the Good Fight

I took 3 adorable Kindergarten classes on a tour of Whole Foods this past week.  When we stopped in the supplement section I pointed out the probiotics.  I said “inside our tummies (our ‘guts’), there is a fight going on – between the good guys and the bad guys (meanwhile I am demonstrating my best air punching moves).  If someone comes to school and sneezes or coughs on you, those “bad guy” bacteria go into your body, and they join in the fight, trying to make you sick.  But if you have enough good guys in there on your team, they might defeat them, and not let those bad guys make you sick.  So when we have more good bacteria or “good guys,” we might get sick less often, and our digestion will work better.”   I then asked them – “We can take a probiotic supplement to boost our good guys, but what foods can we eat to get probiotics?”  Right away they answered – “yogurt!”

In addition to yogurt, other fermented foods and drinks include kim chee, saurkraut, kombucha, kefir, miso, sourdough, and raw apple cider vinegar. Even raw cacao is fermented! Not only do fermented foods introduce beneficial bacteria into our digestive system, they also improve the nutritional profile of that food.  Eating fermented and cultured foods/drinks, and/or taking probiotic supplements can offer many health benefits.

To learn more about fermented foods, read The Fine Art of Fermentation.

More information/sources:


Sara Vance Article written by Nutritionist Sara Vance, author of the book
The Perfect Metabolism Plan A regular guest on Fox 5 San Diego, you can see many of Sara’s segments on her media page. She also offers corporate nutrition, school programs, consultations, and affordable online eCourses. Download her free 40+ page Metabolism Jumpstart eBook here.

*This article is for educational purposes only. The content contained in this article is not to be construed as providing medical advice. All information provided is general and not specific to individuals. Persons with questions about the above content as how it relates to them, should contact their medical professional. Persons already taking prescription medications should consult a doctor before making any changes to their supplements or medications.

©2015, all rights reserved. Sara Vance.

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