Bacteria are fundamental to physical and mental wellbeing of humans. They are our powerful ally and nature’s assurance towards building a robust immune system and develop resilience against pathogens. By a rough assessment, there are more bacteria in the body of an adult than there are a number of cells. About 99 percent of bacteria live in our bowels and have a supreme bearing on our health. The bacteria along with other tiny organisms like fungi and viruses make our unique microbiome.
The humans are sterile only in the mother’s womb and when a baby passes through the birth canal, millions of mother’s bacteria cover every single part of its body thus marking the beginning of a lifelong symbiotic association. Our body not only accepts this invasion rather welcomes it. This marks the onset of our immune system. Even the mother’s milk contains certain sugars that are meant to support and feed a specific group of microorganisms that strengthen and modulate our response to pathogens and within two years we have a strong microbe community or microbiome. As our microbiome evolves and communicates with our body, bacteria are not identified as intruders but as an integral part of the digestive system.
Although the seed for our microbiome comes from our mother, how it develops and changes is determined by what we eat. Our microbiome is like fingerprints, even two identical twins have different ecosystems in their bowels depending on their lifestyle choices.
The bacteria in our bowels can be put roughly into three categories, those which take up space and nutrients and help to check the growth of harmful microbes; those that help digest food, absorb water and electrolytes; and the third are the aggressive warriors which form our immune system. The good bacteria aid the absorption of nutrients, produce vitamin K and D while also supporting the natural defenses of the body.
Different types of bacteria feed on different things, some like sugars and fats and some like leafy greens. If we eat healthy, we breed bacteria that thrive on healthy food and if we gorge on fries and burgers, we breed fast food loving bacteria. As the food is digested by these microbes they produce chemicals which control our digestion, make us hungrier or thirstier, induce cravings for certain foods and even produce metabolites like serotonin which are responsible for anxiety and depression.
If the critical balance between the good and not so good bacteria is skewed owing to our food choices leading to a rampant growth of unhealthy bacteria, this may lead to weight gain, lifestyle diseases like diabetes, food allergies and even cancer and schizophrenia. It seems our microbiome and brain are intimately connected and their unique dialogue impacts our wellbeing.
Research supports that sick people invariably have a less diverse microbiome community. Ideally the inside of our bowel should be like a well maintained garden, with lots of different species, all interacting with each other which makes it difficult for intruders and invaders to take over.
A vibrant microbiome does not depend on whether you are vegan or eat gluten free food or are non-vegetarian as long as you eat a variety of seeds, herbs, spices, fruits, berries and nuts and fiber rich food like vegetables and whole grains. New age super foods like kefir and kombucha strengthen the immune system by supporting the growth of friendly bacteria.
Therefore, eating healthy is important but not sufficient. Diverse types of food are fuel for the microbes and help set up a robust microbiome. So variety in terms of food indeed is the spice of healthy life which keeps us strong and resilient. Doctors prescribe antibiotics for a stipulated time for a reason, these can wipe out not only the unhealthy bacteria but also the healthy ones fashioning a health crisis if consumed for longer periods.
Microbes are good, the more you have, the better you are and healthier you are. Also, diversity is important, the more the variety, the merrier we feel. Although the understanding of the role of bacteria in our bowel is in the nascent stage, it is believed that in future it might be possible to use a particular strain of gut bacteria to not only reduce the risk but even cure certain diseases. Thus, the quantum world of microbiomes is waiting to be explored and demystified.
The perception that microbes are foes of human beings is a myth – bacteria stand out as clear friends unless our not so good lifestyle throws them out of balance to pose threats to our health …… the choice is ours!
(The writer is PGT Physics at Shiv Nadar School Noida.)
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