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Good and Bad Bacteria

Written by Adam Whitby

We can all be concerned that bacterial infection might be catching, transmissible, communicable and contagious. All in all, bacteria have a fairly bad name, and are seen to be avoided at all costs.

But that's not the whole story. There are also many helpful and friendly bacteria that provide many benefits for the human body, as well as keeping those nasty bad bacteria to manageable proportions.  Good bacteria could be beneficial for various conditions such as indigestion, bloating or diarrhoea. The healthy bacteria in our digestive tract are responsible for a digestive and immune functions. They have even been linked to weight loss, stress, anxiety and mood.  Healthy bacteria produce enzymes which help break down our food. They are also involved in the synthesis and absorption of vitamins and minerals into the bloodstream. Probiotics also help protect the body by stimulating the natural defence mechanisms based in the gut, and by being an anti-inflammatory influence for the intestinal epithelial cells. This helps to avoid ‘intestinal permeability’ or ‘leaky gut’ which has been linked to many autoimmune conditions.Bacteria live in huge and unimaginable numbers on land, sea and air, and the harmless and beneficial ones, together with some yeasts and moulds, have been used for thousands of years in the making of fermented foods such as cheese, yoghurt, pickles, vinegar, wine and others. It is thought that in biblical times people drank sour milk to relieve digestive problems.

The human body is host to an estimated 100 trillion of these living organisms; bacteria outnumbers the human cells in your body by roughly 10:1. Some bacteria can be harmful – the ‘pathogenic’ ones, can produce toxins, cause infections, and have also been implicated in conditions including diabetes, obesity and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).  But some of the bacteria living in our gut are useful and beneficial to the human body, and essential in maintaining good digestive health. These good bacteria are called 'probiotic' bacteria, commonly known as the 'friendly' bacteria. These bacteria help to break down the food we eat, and also to extract vitamins that our bodies need. They also help to control the levels of bad or 'pathogenic' bacteria, which take any opportunity to multiply and cause problems.  Read here about the potential of probiotics for bloating

Close up photo of a probiotic microorganism, find out more about probiotics.

Many people consume a less than healthy diet for various reasons. It may be because of the easy availability of convenience and processed foods, either take-aways or meals that simply require a microwave oven to heat up. Then there are deep fried or fatty and salty meals which are often cheaper than fresh ingredients, plus all the massive amounts of snacks and nibbles available these days. Our hectic and stressful lifestyles of holding down a job, looking after children or elderly relatives all conspire to prevent us from eating regularly and sensibly. Much of those instant foods can reduce the amounts of friendly bacteria in our intestine, or increase the levels of bad bacteria. For example, sugar feeds your bad bacteria, so high levels of sugar in your diet will encourage an imbalance, not only of nutritious food intake, but also of bad bacteria.

Our friendly bacteria are also challenged by many other modern attempts to eliminate bacteria in general – chlorine in water, pesticides and fertilisers on crops, antibiotics in livestock, and antibiotics for our own bacterial infections, which while doing a great job in getting rid of bad bacteria, unfortunately they also do a good job in wiping out our friendly bacteria at the same time.

For these reasons many people top up their levels of good bacteria by taking daily probiotic supplements.

About Adam

Adam has been involved in health and medicine for over thirty years, mostly reviewing clinical studies for general practitioners, writing patient information leaflets and producing medical video programmes.

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