Cleanliness may well be next to godliness, but only in the sense that our sterilized, antiseptic lifestyles are endangering our long-term health. While unsightly, the billions of microbial bacteria that inhabit every vestibule of our bodies are what really keep us going. It’s time to start looking after them
How much is your yoghurt worth? In Tesco you’re looking at just over £1 for half a dozen probiotic tubs, or a little short of £3 for the slightly more upmarket Yakult equivalent. Sound about right? How about £29 billion? That’s the figure put on the probiotics industry by experts at last year’s microbe-centric Probiotcs Conference, which equates to a £10 billion investment in “good bacteria” since 2013.
It’s easy to get sniffy about these sorts of wellness bandwagons, but the importance of bacteria in a healthy body cannot be underestimated. Each of us plays host to roughly ten times the number of microbial cells to human cells, amounting to 2kg worth of foreign interlopers working in harmony with our bodies. In the gut these microbes work to extract nutrients from food while boosting digestive health, your immune system and cholesterol management in the process. Not for nothing does the old adage have it that good health starts in the gut.
But there’s a problem. We may think our efficient, sanitized lifestyles represent a wholesome clean living ideal, but in reality, the modern diet, our dependence on antibiotics and an obsession with hygienics is depriving our body’s bacteria of vital sustenance. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, this means that our bodies now contain 40% less beneficial gut microbes than our hunter-gatherer ancestors. This has significant health implications.
“You have at least a thousand species of good microbes on your body, from your gut to your armpits, mouth, nose, toes and more,” says Dr Rob Dunn, a biologist at North Carolina State University. “Our bodies rely on these microbes, but our lifestyles are causing some species to disappear, and their loss has been linked to conditions such as inflammatory bowel diseases, MS, asthma, and Alzheimer’s.”
The need to protect these bacteria, then, is more crucial than ever. The good news is that tweaking your diet has been shown to increase the diversity of gut microbiome in a matter of days, while a few other simple lifestyle tweaks can help you keep the good stuff working in your favour . Join us as we put some of our most important microbes under the electron microscope and go on a fantastic voyage into the recesses of the healthy body.
1. Your second stomach
What Is It?
So far, thousands of bacteria species have been found in your gut, mostly in the large intestine – and they’re all highly specialised. “Some digest difficult foods, like the fibre in broccoli, with enzymes that act as microscopic knives,” says Dunn. Others help strengthen the intestinal lining. But this particular microbe culture – or microbiome – is delicate. In fact, it’s been in our bodies since birth, so we need treat to treat it with more care. “Unfortunately, antibiotics kill both the good and bad,” Dunn says, “and for now at least it’s impossible to target one over the other.”
Give your gut a fighting chance by upping its allies’ food supply. “Microbes like these are also found in aged cheeses,” says Dunn. “In fact, many microbes used to make fermented foods like kimchi and sourdough bread were originally outsourced human body microbes. Eating foods like these that are ‘alive’ will help re-colonise your gut with good microbes.” In our book, that means an artisan take on the British staple: a cheese and pickle sandwich.
2. Your natural deodoriser
What Is It?
These tiny, peach-shaped bacteria play a starring role in the microbiome on your feet. Back when our ancestors roamed the forest brogue-less, their odds of developing foot infections were high. So Dunn believes these microbes developed to help kill potentially fatal fungi. Now they’re more likely to protect you from the accumulated gunk in the gym locker room.
“Your feet sweat out as much as 250ml of water a day,” says Dunn. “Historically, this would have kept these microbes healthy, but now they’re trapped in modern shoes and socks they mostly just make your feet smell.” In addition to going barefoot as often as possible, another solution is to opt for a pH-neutral shower gel like Sanex Zero or Nivea Men Sensitive to safeguard your between-the-toes habitat.
3. Your adaptable adversary
What is it?
E Coli Bacteria
We tend to think of these bacteria as pathogens in their own right. But they’re in your gut right now, working happily with the rest of your microbiome to keep you healthy (shown here as blue capsules in the large intestine). It’s only when a new E Coli species is introduced to your system that you’re at risk. “What you want is moderation with your microbes,” says Dunn. “You need to work out how to keep unwanted guests out, while protecting the good stuff you already have.”
Left to its own devices, your beneficial E. Coli colonies will thrive. Instead, ensuring new, harmful species don’t make their way into your system should be the priority. A recent University of Cambridge study found that one in four supermarket chicken samples contained E Coli. If you’re going to eat meat – and we trust that most of you are – find yourself a good butcher.
4. Your Navel Captains
What Is It?
Navel Bacteria and Fungi Spores
“Every one of us wears a ‘cloak’ of beneficial microbes that protect from pathogens,” says Dunn. “Imagine a flu virus landing in the middle of this. It wouldn’t stand a chance.” But as well as putting up a barrier to agents of disease, these microbes also produce waste that influences the way mosquitoes (and people) are either drawn to you – or repelled. “Glands all over your body feed these microbes with secretions,” says Dunn. “The belly button even has specialised glands that appear to nourish the bacteria that live inside it.” Think of it as your ‘eau de you.’
Ironically, Dunn explains, if you remove this cloak of waste you’ll likely die. But that’s precisely what we’re doing with antimicrobial lotions, wipes and antiperspirants. The solution might seem counter-intuitive, but opting for plain old soap and water, and skipping the deodorant on rest days, will create a healthier, more agreeably odorous you.
5. Your homegrown breath fresheners
What is it?
Mouth and Tongue Microbes
These confetti-like strands represent some of the millions of microbes that live in your mouth and help break down food and subdue pathogens. This may come as a surprise to those brought up with the understanding that bacteria is the cause of tooth decay and bad breath. But as always, it’s a question of balance. Two predominant things threaten this harmony: sugar and overenthusiastic oral hygiene products. “Hunter-gatherer mouth microbes were quite different from ours today,” says Dunn. “Once we started eating sugar, our entire oral biome changed, resulting in the onset of cavities and periodontal disease.” Sterility is not the answer, however, because removing beneficial bacteria simply encourages the bad stuff to colonise.
“The more sugar we eat, the more we alter the microbial battlefield,” says Dunn, adding to the litany of sugar’s misdemeanours. The WHO already advises cutting your sugar intake to 25g a day (or six teaspoons), so for the sake of teeth and belly, do as your told. But Dunn also advises steering clear of mouthwashes that contain alcohol and consequently alter oral pH levels. Probiotic lozenges will help restore the natural balance.
6. Your friendly enemies
What is it?
Helicobacter Pylori Bacteria
These golden threads are H. Pylori, a species of bacteria living in the acidic stomach linings of roughly 50% of the world’s population. In rare cases, they can be blamed for peptic ulcers and some stomach cancers. But often infections are harmless. “In fact, when viewed as part of the entirety of the gut microbiome, they’re important contributors,” says Dunn. Beneficial duties include regulating stomach acid, thereby reducing acid reflux and the risk of esophageal cancer. They may also, in some as-yet-undetermined way, battle asthma and allergies.
“Once again we have this balance,” says Dunn. “Upset it, and even good friends like these can turn on you.” But, where cancer is concerned, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Feeling bloated with a simultaneous loss of appetite can be a sign of infection. Thankfully, treatment is a simple triple shot of stomach-acid lowering tablets designed to help two further antibiotics go to work. Smoking and alcohol can exacerbate the condition, but you got a handle on that long ago, right?
By: Joe Kita; Photography: Martin Oeggerli