Farming the Microbiome

Being health conscious by washing hands often is a good practice, but sometimes we look at bacteria from an extreme perspective. There is no need to rid your environment of bacteria; in fact, bacteria are a part of being healthy.

While everyone is encouraged to wash their hands, sometimes people eliminate too many of the bacteria — microbes — around them.

Bacteria have a bad reputation.  While it’s true that many can and do cause disease, there are actually many beneficial bacteria that can help prevent and treat disease. About 95% of the “cells” of the human body are actually bacteria.

These beneficial bacteria are termed probiotic, which means “life promoting.”

“They produce B vitamins needed for our metabolism to run,” said Dr. Stephanopoulos-Chichura of the KU Integrative Medicine program. “Vitamin K helps us form clots when we are cut or injured.”

Plus, bacteria produce enzymes that help us detoxify the chemicals and carcinogens (cancer causing substances) we come in contact with daily; they help to keep the gastrointestinal tract lining as a tight barrier so harmful bacteria cannot enter. They strengthen the immune system and make beneficial short chain fatty acids such as butyrate that can help protect against colon cancer.

Since bacteria actually help us live and outnumber us, we shouldn’t necessarily try to get rid of all of them.

“We need to recognize the harmful or pathogenic bacteria that can cause disease and balance them out with the good bacteria to restore balance,” she said.

One area to look to in order to understand more about this balance between bacteria and our immune system is the gastrointestinal tract.

The gastrointestinal system alone contains approximately two-thirds of our immune system and is responsible for digestion and absorption of the foods we eat to obtain energy.  The human gut has been shown to contain at least 30,000 to 40,000 different organisms. 

We can populate our gastrointestinal system with probiotics through our diet. This has been referred to as “farming the microbiome” – creating a culture of good bacteria in the body. People around the world have been doing this for centuries through the use of fermented foods containing good bacteria such as kombucha tea, kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, pickled vegetables, and more. 

“The big picture is to continue to obtain the good bacteria through our healthy foods and to not allow the pathogenic or harmful bacteria to cause disease.  The practice of consistent good hand washing is a key way to accomplish this goal.”

For more on ways to add good microbes to your diet, visit microbes in the kitchen.