From probiotics and digestive health all the way down to aquarium maintenance, bacteria are credited with many benefits. In addition to the balancing act bacteria play in increasing our vitamin absorption and decreasing the bacteria that cause infections and make us sick, research is revealing that the benefits of “good” bacteria may go much further.
One such example is a 2012 study published in the journal Science. It suggested that exposure to certain microbes early in childhood could help protect against inflammatory bowel disease and asthma.
Another discovery by German and Swiss researchers prompted them to evaluate the differences in immunology between farm children and those who grew up in a more urban environment, (meaning with limited exposure to farm animals). They found a striking difference. Those who had frequent exposure to livestock had a much lower rate of atopic disease such as asthma, allergic rhinitis and atopic dermatitis. The more an individual child was around the animals, the lower the rate of disease. Researchers suggested a possible explanation was that exposure to bacterial products of animal origin in stables and farmhouses may alter the child’s immune system, leading to the observed protective effect.
Moreover, Danish researchers revealed that exposure, even in infancy, can make a significant difference in the immunity of an individual. Research from the University of Copenhagen examined the bacteria in the intestine of over 400 infants. They “observed a direct link” between the number of different bacteria and risk of developing allergic disease later on. Professor Hans Bisgaard, consultant at Gentofte Hospital, head of the Copenhagen Prospective Studies on Asthma in Childhood, and professor of children’s diseases at the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Copenhagen states:
“Reduced diversity of the intestinal microbiota during infancy was associated with increased risk of allergic disease at school age… and the greater the variation, the lower the risk… I must emphasize that there is not one single allergy bacteria … What matters is to encounter a large number of different bacteria early in life when the immune system is developing and ‘learning’.”
Researchers are not suggesting doing away with sanitary practices known to protect infants and children from dangerous bacteria. However, these studies provide evidence that anti-bacterial products may not be necessary in all instances. Instead, researchers suggest that it’s ok to let children get a little dirty. Case in point, playing in the mud can expose children to a wide range of bacteria and may strengthen their immune systems for the future; however, washing hands before eating is still wise. Good hygiene is critical to protect against bad bacteria that cause illness.
The bacteria balance in your body is also affected by medications. Antibiotics are valuable for fighting bacterial infections. Unfortunately, they kill both good and bad bacteria. That imbalance in the digestive tract can lead to nausea and diarrhea along with other side-effects such as rash and yeast infection. This, along with the risk of developing an immunity to the medication, are why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that antibiotics be taken ONLY when needed to treat certain infections and life-threatening conditions caused by bacteria. The CDC points out that antibiotics do not work on viruses and are not needed for some bacterial infections that are likely to resolve on their own.
Diet also affects the bacteria in your body. Foods high in artificial sugars, excess starches and vegetable oil can negatively affect the balance. As more and more processed food is consumed, risks of infection and poor health increase. However, eating from a healthy menu of fresh and whole foods can help improve the balance. Certain foods, such as yogurt, tend to be especially good for balancing the intestinal bacteria and there are even supplements that can help.
Childhood is an important time to encourage good healthy habits that can last a lifetime. In addition to diet and medication considerations, these studies show that spending time outside playing in nature and helping out with taking care of pets and livestock are activities that will support good intestinal health and whole-body wellness.
Doctors of chiropractic are trained in providing wellness and prevention services. Partner with your chiropractor to learn more about ways to maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
Science News, Dirt prevents allergy, Danish research suggests. Science Daily. November 6, 2011. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/11/111102125601.htm
Bisgaard H, Li N, Bonnelykke K, Chawes BLK, Skov T, Paludan-Müller G, Stokholm J, Smith B, Krogfelt KA. Reduced diversity of the intestinal microbiota during infancy is associated with increased risk of allergic disease at school age. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. 2011; 128 (3): 646 DOI: 10.1016/j.jaci.2011.04.060
Staughton J. Good Bacteria Vs. Bad Bacteria: How Bacteria Can Be Healthy Too! https://www.scienceabc.com/humans/good-bad-gut-bacteria-human-body-probiotics-healthy.html 30 Apr 2016. (Updated: 19 Oct 2019)
Olszak T, An D, Zeissig S, Vera MP, Richter J, Franke A, Glickman JN, Siebert R, Baron RM, Kasper DL, Blumberg RS. Microbial exposure during early life has persistent effects on natural killer T cell function. Science. 2012 Apr 27;336(6080):489-93. doi: 10.1126/science.1219328. Epub 2012 Mar 22.
Kabesch M, Lauener R. Why Old McDonald had a farm but no allergies: Genes, environments, and the hygiene hypothesis. Journal of Leukocyte Biology. (2004) 75. 383-7. 10.1189/jlb.1003468.
Antibiotic Use Questions and Answers. https://www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/community/about/should-know.html