Probiotics = Friendly Bacteria = Bugs as Drugs
Bacteria are tiny living organisms that can only be seen with a microscope so they are classified as microorganisms or microbes. Microbes (bacteria, fungi, yeast) are probably the oldest forms of life on earth. Humans and microbes have evolved over hundreds of years and have formed a complex relationship with each other and we now know that humans need microbes in order to stay healthy and microbes need the environment provided by the human body to survive.
Research in recent years has resulted in a paradigm shift in how we view bacteria. It is now known that many more bacteria are beneficial to humans than harmful. For many years, main-stream medical science as well as the general public thought of bacteria as villains. This attitude was the consequence of the discovery of the “Germ Theory of Disease” in the mid 1800’s when it was determined that bacteria invading and multiplying in humans could disrupt the function of various organ systems resulting in many disease states. The attitude became that the only good bacterium is a dead bacterium (much like the attitude many people have about snakes).
Bacteria that are considered germs and cause disease are known as pathogens. As physicians evaluated a diseased patient looking for a pathogen, they noted by microscopic exam and culturing tissue from these patients, that other bacteria were always present but seemed harmless. These bacteria were universally noted even in healthy people, but their characteristics were not distinctive enough to name or classify them but they did not behave as germs. They became known as ‘normal flora’.
The Human Genome Project was completed in 2003 when researchers developed the technology to map the DNA contained in the genes of living cells. Thus, all living things could be identified by their distinctive DNA. The availability and affordability of this technology provided the ability to identify all of the bacteria typically present in and on a typical human and it was found that each individual harbors trillions of bacteria in and on their body! The bacteria were by far more prominent in the gut. Other areas with high colony counts, although much less than the gut, were the skin, mouth, and genital area.
In recent years, scientists have recognized that humans exist in an ecosystem with microbes (much like ecosystems of a rain-forest or coral reef) whereby communities of living things beneficially interact with each other and the environment in order to sustain a flourishing system. If there is a significant disruption to any component of the system, it becomes unstable and malfunctions resulting in an unhealthy environment for the system’s inhabitants. In the case of the human/bacterial ecosystem, the consequences can be disease and even death.
The population of the many different bacteria inhabiting an individual is known as a person’s microbiome. The microbiome of each person has some commonality with others yet is as distinctive for that individual much like a fingerprint.
It is now estimated that the number of microbial cells in our body outnumber human cells by a factor of 10 to 1, so one could conclude that we are only 10% human. Likewise, estimating the quantity of microbial DNA relative to the amount of human DNA in an individual would suggest that we are only 1% human.
The science of the human microbiome, particularly in the highly populated gut, has rapidly evolved and now it appears that who we are as individuals and our health status may be more dependent and determined by the genetics of our gut microbiota than our human genes. We now know that our gut bacteria produce metabolic products that determine our state of wellness and the occurrence of disease. Also, the products from these gut bacteria likely determines even our emotional state. Other consequences include: the health of our gastrointestinal tract; the effectiveness of our immunity to disease; the rate that we age; the occurrence of obesity and diabetes; and the onset and progression of cancer. Additionally, these bacteria produce essential vitamins that otherwise our bodies cannot make.
Clinical scientists are now pursuing extensive investigations to determine what constitutes a normal human microbiome and which bacteria in an individual’s gut are harmful and which are beneficial. The goals in therapy will be to provide substances called prebiotics and probiotics that will establish healthy populations of our microbiota. Prebiotics are any substances, such as foods in our diet, that feed and promote growth of good bacteria and probiotics are health promoting bacteria that are ingested (bugs as drugs) to appropriately repopulate (or one might say ‘repoopulate’) our GI tract to promote health and prevent disease.
This is exciting new science whereby highly skilled scientists have basically uncovered a new organ in our bodies (just like a kidney or liver, etc.) – the human microbiome. We will follow closely the evolution of our knowledge of this new organ system and provide updates in future articles.
Dr. Tippett is founder of Comprehensive Healthcare Providers, an internal medicine concierge medicine practice located at 1210 Commerce Dr. Suite 106 Greensboro, Ga. 30642. He can be reached at 706-510-3659. Visit his webpage at www.drtippett.com