Irecently read a fascinating article in the Boston Globe that I encourage everyone to check out. I don't usually read things in the Science section, but this article was pertinent to my daily life, and written in a style that is accessible to non-science minds like myself. The gist if it is that we (or, the scientist who study such things and then tell me about it) are only just beginning to discover the extent to which our bodies are teeming with microbes--bacteria, fungi and other "eensy entities" (Yes, the article used the word "eensy." I told you it was speaking my language!) --that may be much more essential to human health than previously known.
"We can't take nutrition properly without bacteria. We can't fight bad germs without good germs," he said. "It may turn out that secretions from bacteria affect not only long-term health, but hour-by-hour moods - could a person's happiness depend on his or her bugs? It's possible. Our existences are so incredibly intertwined."
However, in the opinion of some researchers, this strange union may be headed for trouble because of profligate use of antibiotics and antiseptic lifestyles that deter the transfer of vital strains of bacteria that have swarmed in our systems at least since early humans ventured out of Africa.
Some strains of bacteria are disappearing from humans, especially in industrialized countries, and may be linked to germ-destroying substances in everything from hankies to hamburger.
I found this analysis of how we acquire bacteria to be fascinating, especially as someone who is passionate about normal birth!
Humans are born kicking, screaming - and sterile. The womb contains no germs, but the moment a new baby emerges it is colonized by rapidly multiplying microbes - from its mother's breast, from the clothes in which it is first swaddled, from the germ-imbued air of its first breath.
Not every baby acquires the same germs. A baby born by Caesarean section, for example, will pick up other germs than a baby delivered through the birth canal. And there are hints that acquiring the right combination of bacteria affects health in ways similar to inheriting good genes.
In the past, microbiologists have focused on the bacteria that causes harm to humans. According to the article, little to no research has been done on the vast numbers of harmless or even beneficial bacteria. The concern is that now strains of bacteria that have "accompanied humans everywhere" are disappearing before scientist know what effect they have.
Take the stomach bacterium Helicobacter pylori, an ambivalent germ: It has been linked to ulcers and stomach cancers. But it also may guard against asthma and diseases of the esophagus, according to new research.
In Africa, 90 percent of children carry h. pylori in their stomachs. So did children in the United States, until a few decades ago.
The bacteria seem to be transferred within families who live in close proximity, sharing beds, eating utensils, and tight quarters. These days, only about 5 percent of American children harbor the bacteria - that's because US kids often grow up in small families, occupy private bedrooms, drink clean water, and scarf food from plates scoured in dishwashers using antibacterial soaps.
One good consequence is that stomach disease is on the decline in the West, say researchers.
But diseases of the esophagus, allergies, and childhood asthma are on the rise. And research by Blaser and NYU epidemiologist Yu Chen suggests that h. pylori provided protection against esophageal diseases - including cancer - as well as asthma. Their study last year of 7,663 adults found that those who carried the bacteria were 40 percent less likely to have had asthma under age 15 than those who didn't host it.
"What we see, for certain, is that human micro-ecology is changing right under our noses," said Blaser. "This bacterium has been the dominant organism in our stomach for tens of thousands of years. Now it's disappearing. I suspect if [h. pylori] was totally bad for us, it wouldn't have been there. So I think the disappearance will have consequences. You can compare this to changes occurring in the world environment - species that may be vital are vanishing too fast."