Thursday, November 14, 2013

A look at microbes, from various angles

Bacteria. I'm quickly becoming more and more convinced that bacteria is about the most fascinating form of life on our planet. And I've just barely scratched a tiny fraction of the surface on the subject of bacteria and microbes and the way they affect us and the world. Oh, why didn't I study microbiology in college!?! Well, it makes no difference, since all the information on most any subject we want is readily available to us, thanks to the internet, I can read about bacteria all I want for free!

This blog post was inspired by a couple different things. For one, my friend and co-blogger recently shared an article with me about the fascinating new work that's being done in academia to study and map the so-called "microbiome" of human bodies. That is, all the living microbes that inhabit our bodies and actually outnumber our own cells on a 10 to 1 scale (link). The other reason, is that I just happened to go down to Wild Rivers Market to pick up a kombucha, only to find that my drink already had a a fully grown SCOBY in it (SCOBY= Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast - picture for reference).

These two occurrences today got me thinking about bacteria from multiple viewpoints, but mostly based around the stigma that bacteria still carries.

Now there's no denying that some bacteria can be harmful. Although the VAST, VAST minority of bacteria are actually pathogens, those bad ones can still really harm people, as anyone who has ever been sick knows. Through most of human history, we had no idea why people were always getting sick, no idea how to really treat infections properly, and no idea what was causing sickness. It wasn't until a Dutch cloth merchant/microbiologist named Antony van Leeuwenhoek discovered bacteria in the 1670's that we found out what was causing all this sickness. From then on, bacteria became the enemy. Especially in the medical world and food processing industry, bacteria was seen as the cause of most problems and was fought with everything we could come up with. Louis Pasteur's discoveries led to the process of pasteurization, exposing things to heat to kill off all bacteria and microbes. Now, Pasteur's discoveries definitely saved countless lives, a controlling exposure to bacteria is absolutely necessary for many industries. However, the world was also left with the idea that bacteria is always harmful and needs to be eliminated at every turn.

As explored in the article linked above, the scientific community is just recently coming back around to really embracing and understanding the important role that bacteria plays in all our lives. Bacteria was never the enemy, and scientists are discovering how it's really bacteria that keeps us alive, keeps us healthy, the bacteria in our bodies and the bacteria that we can get from food.

I became interested in this topic as I learned more about fermentation. There is still very much a stigma around bacteria in our food, even though many foods and drinks people eat regularly depend on bacteria and other microbes (fermented foods and drinks). Many people would probably be way too freaked out to drink my kombucha with the SCOBY in it, despite the fact that it is that bacteria and yeast that is creating the health benefits of the drink. And the stigma is still institutionalized. My friends and I had a booth at this summer's Farmer's Market, selling fermented food and drinks. Despite CA recently passing more lax regulations on what can be sold at farmers markets, we were still shut down because our foods with living organisms in them are still considered "dangerous" and cannot be sold without lengthy inspections and permitting first. With the scientific community just recently coming around to embracing bacteria, it seems the regulatory community is further behind, and just doesn't know how to deal with these strange microbes.

This blog post was pretty on-the-fly, so I didn't do much in the way of quoting direct facts or statistics. Instead, i will give you some anecdotal stories and info about bacteria that I have found fascinating.

  • The way doctors have traditionally treated bacterial infections is to prescribe a heavy dose of antibiotics, killing off the harmful bacteria, along with a lot of other bacteria in the body that is not harmful. Recently, doctors have been looking at the problem from a different angle, and they are finding out that the real problem is not presence of bacteria, but the IMBALANCE of bacteria, i.e. not enough of the good, healthy bacteria. One of the simplest examples of treatments that follow that idea is the treatment of ear infections. Instead of prescribing a dose of antibiotics when you have an ear infection, doctors have found that taking a q-tip and collecting wax from your healthy ear, then sticking the q-tip in your infected ear is drastically more affective at treating an ear infection. Similarly (and it gets a little gross here), there is a new controversial treatment for intestinal infections that is gaining ground and getting approval from the FDA. In the case of people with bacterial infections in their guts, doctors will do a fecal transplant. As in, they will take the feces from a healthy person's digestive tract and implant it into the sick person, allowing the healthy bacteria to overtake the pathogens. Sounds crazy/disgusting? The Mayo Clinic has found it to be over 90% effective.
  • The process of fermentation leaves the fermented food or drink packed full of "probiotics," which are micro-organisms that are the byproduct of fermentation, found in large supply in foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha. In a recent RadioLab episode, titled "Guts" the hosts discuss a scientific experiment testing the effect of probiotics on our guts, and our brains. SCIENCE! Quick lesson: our stomachs actually have millions of neurons in them, giving them a direct link to the brain, especially the parts of our brains affecting emotion. The majority of serotonin in our bodies, the neurotransmitter responsible for our feelings of happiness and contentment, is actually found in our stomachs, not brains. It's just that the serotonin has no efficient way of making it to the brain to affect our emotions. Enter probiotics... in the experiment, they gave a series of stress tests to rats with varying degrees of probiotics in their diets. The rats with excessive amounts of probiotics in their diet (lots and lots of yogurt), responded exceedingly well to the stress tests and were found to be the happiest, most content of their test subjects. They found that probiotics create an extremely efficient pathway for the neurons in our stomachs to uptake the massive amounts of serotonin stored there, in a way no other food or microorganism has been able to. What this means is that there is direct scientific evidence that a diet heavy in probiotics can make you a happier person!

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