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Intestinal Bacteria: Do They Help or Hurt?

Your body is teeming with trillions of bacteria, fungi and viruses — and that’s a good thing. Over 400 types of bacteria found in the microbiome help digest food, regulate the immune system, influence mental health and help prevent us from getting sick. 

Although bacteria have a bad reputation and are often associated with disease, research shows that we have a mutually beneficial relationship with many of the bacteria that live on and inside of our bodies.

What Affects Our Microbiome Health?

Most of the microbes inside your body live in your intestines, particularly the large intestine. This ecosystem, made of trillions of bacteria and other microbes, is known as the gut microbiome, or gut flora. 

Every person’s intestinal microbiome is different, and several factors influence the types of bacteria that flourish in your gut, including: 

●       Age

●       The foods you eat

●       Environmental exposures

●       Genetics

●       Medication

●       Physical activity

●       Stress 

Your gut flora plays a role in nearly every process in the body and has a tremendous impact on your physical and mental health.

‘Good’ Bacteria

Many types of bacteria are beneficial to our health. Of the hundreds of different bacteria species identified in the gut microbiome, the two most common types of helpful bacteria include Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. These good bacteria help the body: 

●       Digest food by extracting vitamins and other nutrients the body needs

●       Fight off harmful pathogens (“bad” bacteria, viruses)

●       Metabolize and absorb medications

●       Produce neurotransmitters (such as serotonin) that regulate mental processes, including learning, memory and mood 

While you may be tempted to take probiotic supplements to help maintain levels of good bacteria in your intestine, there’s a lack of evidence to support their use in healthy people. 

Eating a healthy diet with foods rich in probiotics (“good” bacteria) is the best way to help your gut flora flourish. Increase your intake of yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi and other fermented foods to support your intestinal health.

‘Bad’ Bacteria

Of course, not all bacteria help keep you healthy. If you are exposed to harmful bacteria, they may proliferate in your body and make you sick. These bacteria are known as pathogenic because they can lead to illness or infection.  

Some of the more common types of pathogenic bacteria include Clostridium perfringens, E. coli, H. pylori, streptococcus and salmonella. 

Pathogenic bacteria can enter the body through a cut on the skin, through the airways or into the GI tract by consuming contaminated food or water. These bacteria can cause a number of common illnesses, including: 

●       Ear infections

●       Food poisoning

●       Gastroenteritis

●       Giardia

●       Meningitis

●       Pneumonia

●       Staph infections

●       Strep throat

●       Urinary tract infections

Treating Bacterial Infections

If you do get a bacterial infection, it’s important to see your doctor for an accurate diagnosis and recommended treatment, which will depend on the type of infection and your overall health. Many bacterial infections clear up on their own without treatment, but sometimes antibiotics and antibody treatments are the best line of defense:

  • Antibiotics: Many bacterial infections can be treated effectively with antibiotics. The antibiotics either kill or stop the harmful bacteria from multiplying. The type of antibiotic prescribed will depend on the type of bacteria causing the infection. Some antibiotics are used to treat a specific type of bacterial infection, and others — called broad-spectrum antibiotics — work against a wide range of bacteria. 

  • Antibodies: If you are immunocompromised (have a weakened immune system), your doctor may prescribe monoclonal antibodies to treat a bacterial infection. These antibodies mimic a healthy immune system to neutralize bacteria and fight off or prevent infections. 

Can You Avoid Bacterial Infection?

Bacterial infections are common and can be highly contagious. Taking some simple precautions can help you avoid getting sick. 

●       Frequent hand washing. Wash your hands with soap and water often — after coughing/sneezing, before preparing/eating food, after using the bathroom and after coming home from work or socializing. 

●       Don’t share drinking cups or eating utensils. It’s best to avoid napkins, tissues or similar items that others have used.

●       Healthy diet. Eating a balanced, nutrient-rich diet is one of the best ways to protect the flora in your gut and stay healthy.

●       Practice food safety. Cook foods to proper temperatures, separate raw and cooked foods, rinse fruits and vegetables and refrigerate foods promptly.

●       Avoid close contact with people who are sick. Wait to see your friends/family until they’re no longer infectious.

●       Stay up to date on vaccinations. Vaccines help reduce the risk of infection and prevent the spread of disease by helping the body safely develop immunity to common pathogens.

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