Think all germs are bad? Not so fast—did you know some are good for you?
Scientifically, germs are defined as microorganisms like parasites, fungi, bacteria, and viruses, which can make us sick. But research has found that, in fact, we need a fair amount of the good ones to be healthy. Many bacteria are considered to be “good germs;” yes, some can cause illness, but others can be helpful in fighting off harmful invaders, particularly in our intestinal tract.
Our gut contains tens of trillions of microorganisms. We also have them on our skin, in our mouth, and so on, making up almost 5 pounds of our body weight. Clusters of them are called microbiota. Some of them are common to everyone, but others are unique to you alone and get formed during birth (if vaginal delivery) or right after (if Caesarian section).
As you grow, these microbiota evolve and develop from exposure to your environment and diet. Japanese people, for example, can easily digest seaweed, thanks to specific enzymes they acquire from repeated exposure to marine bacteria.
Our microbiota are considered to play a critical role in moderating our immune system, and yet, according to Michael Pollan in The New York Times article “Some of My Best Friends are Germs,” Westerners have eliminated many beneficial bacteria from our environment and diet over the past 60 years. He suggests not enough bacterial diversity may be causing us to be unable to fight off some of the more severe infections we are exposed to, with serious long-term implications.
C-difficile is one particularly insidious bug caused by bad bacteria and often caught by patients following surgery in the hospital. Antibiotics used to control the infection kill both the bad and good bacteria. Often, patients don’t get better, getting stuck in a long-term antibiotic drug spiral and suffering debilitating intestinal symptoms. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this year reported on a new procedure where germs (bacteria from feces) from a healthy individual are injected into a sick person. The success of this treatment was so dramatic that midway through the study, the control subjects who were receiving traditional antibiotics were taken off them and given this treatment. The cure appears to work by restoring the gut’s normal balance of bacteria (bad and good), effectively fighting off the illness.