Bacteria: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly?

The Ugly

Okay, so I know what you’re thinking.

“How dare you debase the physical appearance of bacteria on your first Medium post? Don’t you know bacteria are people too?”

Well, now that I have your attention:

  1. My apologies, but I actually love bacteria.
  2. Not exactly, but as you will see you wouldn’t be too far off.

I must admit, I haven’t always thought so fondly of bacteria as there was a time when I was admittedly an overzealous judge of their physical appearance. If you feel similarly, then I’m hoping that by the end of this post you’ll come to consider what I have learned.

It’s like my mother always said — you should never judge a bacteria by its pili. She was right, of course, because ugly as they may be, bacteria are extremely important to life on planet earth.

The Good

Even though bacteria often get a bad rap in our antibiotic-obsessed culture, approximately 10% of bacteria are “bad” or pathogenic while the other 90% are “good” or non-pathogenic.

More often than not, bacteria are found to live in symbiotic relationships with other organisms. Similar to any good tenant who pays their rent on time, bacteria receive room and board in exchange for providing their host with life-supporting chemical currency, often in the form of nutrients.

In humans, bacteria arguably play their most significant role in the large intestine where they routinely colonize in numbers north of 100 trillion — more than 10 times the number of cells that make up the human body. In essence, each one of us is more bacteria than we are human!

Long referred to as gut flora, these single-celled organisms have seemingly outgrown their traditional designation as they are now being endearingly spoke of as the human microbiome (or microbiota).

Regardless of their alias du jour, most of the ground-breaking, microbe-related research lends itself to the idea that it is time to start thinking about health as a collective union of human cells and the interactions they have with their human-associated bacteria counterparts.

In past posts of mine, (which will soon be available Medium) I have written about the importance of beneficence in the context of a healthy lifestyle design. If you tend to agree, then making considerations to ensure the healthy cohabitation of your gut might just be one of the most important acts of charity you will ever perform.

To start, research has shown that children who have been exposed to bacteria early in life have been linked to lower incidences of allergies and asthma. An allergy is defined as a damaging immune response by the body to a substance to which it has become hypersensitive. The prevailing theory is that by being exposed to bacteria at an early age, children essentially “condition” their immune system to react appropriately.

In addition to being integral to proper immune function, gut bacteria also has an intimate relationship with the nervous system.

Have you ever listened to your “gut instinct?” Ever lost your appetite because you were too anxious?

The basis for these behaviors is an oft-overlooked network of neurons lining our guts which is so extensive that scientists have nicknamed it our “second brain.” Technically known as the enteric nervous system, the second brain relies upon gut bacteria to manufacture hundreds of chemicals that the body uses to regulate basic physical and mental processes.

Considering gut bacteria synthesize 95 percent of the body’s supply of serotonin — the feel-good hormone — it can be said that the microbiota is at least partly responsible for keeping us happy.

In short, the microbiota is being considered by top biochemists to be the new wilderness of wellness, a largely unexplored frontier that very likely could hold the answers to some of our most pressing health problems.

The Bad

If most bacteria are helpful little buggers, then where did the “No-biotic”, fear-mongering attitude come from in the first place?

Prior to 1920, infectious disease had been a significant cause of death in the United States. This started to change in the early 20th century as Louie Pasteur was being celebrated as a savior of humanity for his germ theory of disease, which more or less claimed that disease was caused by microorganisms.

Implementation of public health departments, chlorinated drinking water, and improved sewage disposal soon followed and infectious disease gradually became known as a third world problem.

However, even as American deaths from preventable infectious diseases saw a sharp drop off during the Post-World War II era, a domestic war was still being waged on the microscopic world of bacteria.

Pasteurization and sanitation techniques were being adopted across the board as a failsafe to prevent bad bacteria from entering our germ-free bodies, the first antibiotic (penicillin) became widely available for mass market consumption, vaccinations were licensed for use and antibacterial soap was making its way onto every kitchen counter and bathroom sink.

What no one seemed to realize at the time was that antibacterial efforts were not only killing off harmful bacteria, but they were sending the beneficial bacteria packing as well. All the while, processed foods chock-full of refined carbohydrates and sugar were hitting the shelves and a new stress-filled, consumer-centric society was being born.

The result; an unmitigated disaster of the human-inhabiting microbiota.

Fast forward to the present day where you will have no trouble finding mountains of data supporting the fact that Americans now suffer from chronic disease at the highest rate in human history.

At this point, it seems fair to ask, could the invisible flora in our intestines actually be at the root of all this human malfunction?

As Michael Pollan theorized in his NY Times article “Some of My Best Friends Are Germs,” all health problems may begin in the gut, with a disorder of the microbiome. His theory, which is shared by a growing number of medical researchers, revolves around the importance of the microbiome in maintaining the health of the epithelium — the thinly walled tissue that lines the inside of our digestive tract — which if compromised can trigger different types of inflammatory responses in the body.

Pollan concludes that the common denominator of many, if not most, of the chronic diseases from which we suffer today may be inflammation — a heightened and persistent immune response by the body to a real or perceived threat.

In other words, disorders in our internal ecosystem may predispose us to sub-optimal systemic health.

Nutrition 101

Assuming that you are slowly falling in love with the “good” version of these now-slightly-less-homely creatures, let’s talk about how to best plan your bacterial rendezvous so that you can effectively integrate them into your diet.

When looking to incorporate a probiotic-rich, digestive aid into your meal, all you need to do is remember these four words; Raw, cultured, pickled, or fermented.

If the word “fermented” made you more than a little squeamish, you’re not alone.

Eating foods that have been cultured or fermented is out of the comfort zone of most Americans, and for good reason. With the advent of the refrigerator and freezer, immediate food preservation is now a luxury afforded to most anyone with a roof over their head. However, these appliances are fairly modern conveniences relative to the grand scheme of human evolution.

In more primal times, your strip steak was more likely to be frantically running for it’s life than patiently waiting in your fridge. In the case you were able to find food, you wanted to both eat and save as much as you could, considering the uncertainty of future bounties. Thus, culturing, pickling, and fermenting food became very necessary means of prolonging access to available sustenance.

It can be argued that cultures which were able to harness the preservation power of bacteria, were the ones that inevitably survived the test of time. Considering our basic structure and function has not evolved much over the past 10,000 years, it would seem that our culinary relationship with bacteria is just as important today as it ever was.

A quick look at the pervasive nature of fermented foods across cultures will help to illuminate the historical relevance of probiotic-laden food as a means of nourishment.

  • Japan is famous for natto (fermented soybeans), while Korea has provided the world with tasty kimchi (fermented cabbage).
  • Fermented fish sauce is used liberally in Thai cooking the same way soy sauce is added to most Chinese dishes.
  • Indian and the Middle Eastern diets are filled with various yogurts such as Raita and Tzatziki.
  • Europeans can be given credit for sauerkraut, kefir and crème fraîche.
  • Custom to drinking wine with your dinner? Wine, aka fermented grape juice, has ubiquitously been used as a digestif and to purify water.

If you’re thinking of doubling down on your daily Cabernet consumption, I’d recommend checking out my friends at Dry Farm Wines, who are sourcing only the most health conscious wine available. For when you’re not as thirsty, allow me to provide a brief rundown of other, more sober probiotic options.

My personal favorites are Latin American curtido, Korean kimchi, and kefir.

Kefir is a great option if you enjoy yogurt, as it is very similar in taste and texture. As cultured vegetables don’t require refrigeration, you can carry them with you during the day and eat a few spoonfuls with your lunch.

Even if you are not accustomed to eating gut-friendly foods, incorporating the big four into your diet is easier than you may think.

TL;DR: Bacteria Is Your Friend

This was a long post, so for the parents who have to run because they just smelled “bacteria” in their baby’s diaper, here is a clean wrap up.

Eat this: Foods that are raw, cultured, pickled, or fermented.

Avoid this: Unnecessary dosing of antibiotics, gut-wrenching stress, overly processed carbohydrates, and refined sugars.

Gist: Bacteria are mostly good, so don’t hold a grudge based on what you think you may have heard about them in the past.

Since most of our metabolism is microbial, and the vast selection of processed foods available for consumption are bacterially void, it is extremely important to regularly integrate probiotic-rich foods into our diet.

In a sentence, it’s like Craig Venter — American biologist, entrepreneur, and the first to sequence the human genome — said;

“If you don’t like bacteria, you’re on the wrong planet!”

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