Bacteria: “Friend or foe?”

By Katie Golde

“Wash your hands!”

From childhood on, we all hear that advice to get rid of bacteria that can make us sick. What many don’t know is that our bodies are a host to more types bacteria than we can imagine.

So is bacteria good for you or bad for you, “friend or foe,” quizzed researcher Dr. Karine Clément of the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Paris.

Bacteria like Enterococcus faecalis live in the human gut. Photo by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Bacteria like Enterococcus faecalis live in our gut and help keep us healthy.  Photo: CDC

Much of the 3.3 pounds of bacteria we don’t want to wash away in our bodies sits in our gut and provides numerous health related functions, making this kind of bacteria a good thing.

Changes in our gut flora impact health conditions like Type 2 diabetes and obesity, according to European researchers who presented their findings Saturday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Chicago.

“You might want to consider yourself as kind of an ecosystem. We function together with these microbes in a fantastic way,” said Dr. Oluf B. Pedersen of the University of Copenhagen.

Pedersen’s work, along with Clément’s,  suggests that an equilibrium between health and disease lies within the regulation of our gut microbes through host genetics, lifestyle (diet and exercise) and antibiotic and other drug usage.

Antibiotic use, for instance, can potentially lower the diversity of gut microbes, especially in children, said Pedersen.

Dr. Karine Clément and Dr. Oluf Pedersen answer questions on a panel at their meeting for the AAAS Annual Meeting Saturday.
Dr. Karine Clément and Dr. Oluf Pedersen talked about the link between the bacteria in the gut and prevention of diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Both Pedersen and Clément pointed to research that found correlations between a lack of bacterial diversity and richness in the gut and cardio metabolic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes.

Clément’s research suggested that these risks were lessened with a diet rich in high fiber and low in fat. “Fiber is very important for gut microbiota and for diversity,” said Clément, who referred to vegetables and fruits as good sources.

Microbiotic diversity has the ability to be improved, said Clément, whose studies with diet intervention and even bariatric surgery suggests new therapeutic avenues for diseases like obesity and Type 2 Diabetes.

Both Pedersen and Clemente agree that they are at the beginning of their work on the human gut microbes. “We have to admit we are in our infancy here and we have a long way to go,” said Pedersen.

“I’d like to make the point that most probiotic intervention in humans have failed with lactobacilli and other bacteria,” said Pederesen when asked about the popular use of probiotics as a digestive supplement. “We are doing very, very complex communities in these study, we need this complex of many, many of bacteria in the next generation of probiotic to be efficient.”