The Germs of Good Health
New research highlights the importance of bacteria in the functions of our bodies
Germophobes read on with caution: every surface of your body, outside and in, is covered with bacteria. They number about 100 trillion, which amounts to about 10 bacterial cells for each human cell. Representing about 10,000 different species of microbe, they make up between one and three percent of a person’s body mass, meaning that the typical 200-pound person could be carrying as much as 6 pounds of bacteria.
Before you jump in a scalding hot shower and scrub down like your life depends on it, I should tell you that these aren’t the kind of bacteria that make you sick. For many years, scientists have known that these many bacteria are present in our bodies, making up a complex collection of microbes called the “microbiome”.
Though most scientists viewed them as little more than inessential tagalongs until recently, new research is starting to illuminate the incredible functions that these bacteria serve in our bodies. In fact, these bacteria could be just as important to your health after surgery for weight loss as all of the body’s essential organs. These bacteria perform important tasks from protein and fat digestion to producing chemicals that fight inflammation.
Most of the research into the bacterial content of the human body has thus far focused on the infectious kind. For example, staphylococcus aureus, which causes staph infections, is known to be harmlessly carried in the nose and skin of about one third of the population without causing any infection. Now, with an extensive study that combined the efforts of about 200 scientists at 80 different institutions, we know that these infectious bacteria exist in harmony with a variety of beneficial microorganisms that make up an endlessly complex ecosystem.
However, no two people have the same microbiome. The makeup of the bacteria in our bodies varies widely based on lifestyle and environment, though many different bacteria seem to be capable of adapting to perform similar functions. People in different geographic locations may develop specific microbiomes capable of dealing with the unique factors of that particular environment. These microbial collections can also change when we introduce things like antibiotics, which kill harmful bacteria but may also have an impact on the good ones.
A Humbling Discovery
This new research shows just how much more study is needed to fully understand the functioning of our internal environments. Though we now understand that the microbiome is very important, we’re just beginning to understand the role it plays in our bodies, including its interactions with human genetics. Learning more about them could serve as a way to treat myriad ailments by identifying how microbes differ in people who have certain diseases.
The size and elusiveness of these bacteria have made them notoriously difficult to study, but we’re beginning to make progress. Many questions remain, but this field could mean exciting new ways of improving human health by manipulating the microbiome, a possibility that we never knew existed.