This week's New Yorker cover story, "Germs Are Us," by Michael Specter
, is a well-organized piece of popular science writing that pulls together much of the most recent research regarding the beneficial aspects of bacteria (and how our almost-century-long war on microbes is likely making us fat and sick). As with many other medical topics, anyone who dabbles in the world of alternative health won't be surprised by the collaborative findings of the piece, but I'm sure others will — and even alt-health champions like myself will find some surprises.
Specter begins with the wonderful story of Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria found to cause gastric and peptic ulcers (not stress, as was previously believed). This was such a huge discovery that the team of scientists who figured it out won the Nobel prize for physiology in 2005. Standard blood tests were developed, stomach ailments cured with antibiotics, and it was even suggested that all H. pylori bacteria be eliminated. But it turns out that, like many things in the natural world (and even other "bad" bacteria), H. pylori may very well have an incredibly important function in the human body. For example, there's good evidence that it somehow prevents asthma in children.
After all these years of antibacterial hand wipes and germ-destroying sprays (and while the alt health community has been feverishly fighting the battle for bacteria, I might add), we may have been trying to eliminate one of our most important health allies. Consider this: "We inherit every one of our genes, but we leave the womb without a single microbe. As we pass through our mother's birth canal, we begin to attract entire colonies of bacteria. By the time a child can crawl, he has been blanketed by an enormous, unseen cloud of microorganisms — a hundred trillion or more." These bacteria, which weigh about three pounds in total when we reach adulthood (about the same weight as our brains, interestingly), are called our microbiome. This ecosystem (there are some important funguses and yeasts too), has evolved with us over millennia, assisting the human body in fighting off disease, regulating blood sugar and even affecting appetite.
Appetite? In fact, there is evidence that the levels of stomach hormones ghrelin (which signals us to eat) and leptin (which suppresses appetite by sending the message that we're full) have gone a little haywire in people not infected with the H. pylori bacterium. That is, in those people who have grown up without the bacteria (which is an increasing number of kids today), don't have the H. pylori regulating the appetite hormones properly, which leads to overeating, and then can lead to obesity. "If those hormones aren't controlled, it becomes far more difficult to control one's weight," Specter writes.
In the last 70 years, we have gone from using antibiotics a couple times in a lifetime to several times a year. Each time broad spectrum antibiotics are used, countless beneficial bacteria are eliminated from the body. Most of us literally have hundreds fewer types of bacteria than our parents or grandparents would have had. "We have to stop looking at medicine as a war between invading pathogens and our bodies," Dr. David Relman, a professor of medicine, microbiology and and immunology at Stanford University told the New Yorker of the not-yet-well-understood role of bacteria. "This sort of stewardship has more in common with park management than it does with our current practice of killing, in the broadest way possible, microbes."
And these are just the studies highlighted in one article; the surface of the human body's relationship to bacteria is just being scratched. Those who specialize in studying this topic say we are at the beginning stages of learning how bacteria and our bodies work together. With the myriad studies both concluded and ongoing, don't be surprised if bacterial imbalance turns out to be at work in many more diseases and disorders of the future. I won't be.
Full disclosure: I haven't taken antibiotics in almost a decade, and unless I'm pretty much going to die without them (antibiotics, when used judiciously, have preserved millions of lives, but they should be regarded as a powerful tool) I refuse them. My stance comes from my experience with my own body; when I was a teenager and in my 20s (through and after college), it seemed like every time I took a course of antibiotics, I got better from whatever was troubling me — and then soon after I got some weird ailment I'd never experienced before. It was perfect cause-and-effect. Then I tried, very cautiously, when a doctor told me I "absolutely needed" antibiotics for, to treat it with homeopathics and herbs, and I got better. Then I did it again ... and I haven't turned back.
Interestingly, I've also not gotten sick enough to be prescribed an antibiotic after I have eschewed the drugs and have done several courses of natural treatments.