Written by our guest blogger (and my son) Liam Puknys.
From the moment we enter preschool, our parents tell us to watch out for germs. We wash our hands, use hand sanitizer, and try to avoid these little bugs as much as possible. We take antibiotics to kill them and use vaccines to prevent them from making us sick in the first place. You’ve likely been reading that some of these germs, especially certain bacteria, are actually vital to our health and play a major role in almost every aspect of our health. And, now we are being told that we need to nurture our good bacteria. Before we jump into shifting from killing bacteria to nurturing them, let’s pause for a moment to talk about what’s up in your gut.
All animals have helpful and essential bacteria throughout our digestive tracts and skin. These bacteria, which form a system called the normal microbiota, perform a variety of key functions that help keep us healthy. This picture explains the different ways in which microorganisms can interact with your body, the good and the bad. I recommend looking past the pictures, which all look pretty bad, and reading the text as well.
We basically have an unspoken agreement with the bacteria of our microbiota: we give them warmth, an abundance of nutrients, and a place to live in exchange for rent. They pay that rent in several ways, the most basic way is that the bacteria of the normal microbiota take up physical space and devour nutrients. So, in addition to their digestive role, these good bacteria crowd out pathogenic bacteria, by depriving them of food, and keep them from colonizing. They also make vitamin K, an essential nutrient that your body cannot make.
Our healthy bacteria help an almost immeasurable amount in digesting our food. For starters, the four pounds of bacteria in your gut eat excess sugars and starches in the small intestine before you can absorb all of it, helping manage your weight and releasing essential nutrients. A dramatic example our reliance on our microbiota is a certain New Guinean tribe that eats a diet of 90% low protein sweet potato—their gut bacteria make this possible by converting the plant’s carbohydrates into protein.
The health and balance of your gut bacteria is one of the reasons that taking antibiotics when you don’t need them is a bad idea. Antibiotics kill ALL bacteria they can find, including healthy gut bacteria. Taking an antibiotic may not only make digestion more difficult, but may also, ironically, induce an infection. Opportunistic pathogens that reestablish themselves early after an antibiotic wipe can flourish because there is no competition for nutrients. Taking unnecessary antibiotics may lead to more significant immune problems down the line because your healthy bacteria may not fully recover with each exposure to antibiotics.
There is no doubt that your microbiota play a vital part in maintaining your health. Some forward thinking doctors are starting to consider your microbiota as an organ as vital as your liver or kidneys! If you have a gut or immune problem, you may want to talk to your doctor about improving your microbiota.