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The Good Germs

Esther Ilana Rabi

To many of us, bacteria are dirty, germy, disease-causing organisms, so the idea of consuming a few billion a day might seem hard to swallow. But evidence is growing that certain bacteria may fight disease and actually make us healthier.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

“I went from strapping-young-athlete to famine-victim-with-unquenchable-thirst in four months,” says biologist Jonathan Eisen. “It came to a head on a backpacking trip. I was putting my head into puddles and drinking like a dog. That night, in the emergency room, I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. “Something festered inside me. I wondered, what caused the diabetes? At the time, people thought that harmful bacteria had set my body to destroying its insulin-producing cells. That’s what doctors focused on for a long time, microbes that do bad things.” More than 90 percent of the cells in our bodies are foreign microbes (bacteria). That means that the bacteria living in our bodies — over 1,000 different types! — outnumber our own cells ten to one. Most of them live in our large intestine, aka the gut, with its tennis-court sized surface area. But it’s no cause for panic. “We are covered in a cloud of microbes, but these microbes do us good much of the time, rather than killing us,” Eisen says. “The microbial cloud that lives in and on us helps develop the immune system, fights off pathogens (harmful microbes), determines our metabolic rate, synthesizes vitamins, and may even shape our behavior.” We’re so affected by the “conversation” taking place between ourselves and our microbes that it’s impossible to think about human health without them. The relationship is so important that this gut flora is called “the forgotten organ.” Bacterial colonization begins at birth. In fact, babies born via cesarean section are at higher risk for obesity and diabetes, because they miss the bacterial immersion of the birth canal. And bottle-fed babies, not exposed to the beneficial bacteria of breast milk, are more prone to allergies, asthma, eczema, and celiac disease, as well as obesity.

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