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Bacteria: Friend or Foe? (Part 1)

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Written by Sarah Griffiths, DCH and Inna Shekhtman

February 15, 2018

Microbes are all around us and have a huge impact on our food system, our lives and our health.  We think this is such an important subject that we’ve dedicated our next 3 blogs to discussing it.

So, are bacteria good or bad? For years, bacteria were villainized and the mainstream theory developed by Louis Pasteur in the 19th century was that microbes were the cause of diseases in animals and people (1). This resulted in a health management strategy that focused on eliminating microbes from our environment and bodies and created a whole industry of disinfectants and pharmaceuticals designed to kill bacteria. 

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The competing theory about disease and microbes was developed by Claud Bernard, who argued instead for the importance of balance in good and bad microbes in our body and environment. Recent research into probiotics has helped us understand that microbes are an essential part of the body and that health and resilience are a function of homeostatic balance.  So how do we achieve this balance?

We now know that all mammals (people and animals) have a natural community of microbes, called the microbiome, living inside the gut, on mucosal membrane surfaces and even on the skin.  This microbiome contains a host of beneficial bacteria (known as probiotics) that are essential to immune and metabolic health of people and pets. You may have heard of a few of them including lactobacillus and bifidobacteria. They perform many vital functions in the body including polysaccharide digestion, immune system development, resistance to infection, enzyme and vitamin synthesis (vitamin B’s, K and more), fat storage, angiogenesis (blood vessel formation) regulation, and even behavior development.

Amazingly, it has even been discovered in humans that genes encoded by the core microbiome encode proteins that are required for host survival. These proteins are only encoded by the microbiome and not by the human genome (2). Mind boggling!

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Like any thriving community, a healthy gut microbiome is diverse and populated by a variety of helpful residents. What’s interesting is that the microbiome naturally contains some “bad” or pathogenic bacteria including e. coli. When in balance, they support healthy digestion, immune function and overall health. When they are out of balance, the results can be painful, even debilitating – for example: leaky gut, immune system disorders, gas and bloating, joint pain, and fatigue.

Research projects are being conducted all over the world to discover the benefits and exact roles of these bacteria within the body. It is well-understood that without a healthy population of symbiotic bacteria, the body is immunologically compromised:

“Germ-free (sterile) animals are more susceptible to infection and have reduced vascularity, digestive enzyme activity, muscle wall thickness, cytokine production and serum immunoglobulin levels….” (3)

Medical professionals are slowly beginning to understand how essential exposure to a variety of beneficial bacteria is and how the microbiome is populated. For example, the way an infant is born (C-section vs. natural birth) greatly affects the make-up of the microbiome that develops in the child which can directly affect their immunological status:

“Concurrent with the trend of increasing CD (cesarian delivery), there has been an epidemic of both autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, Crohn's disease, and multiple sclerosis and allergic diseases, such as asthma, allergic rhinitis, and atopic dermatitis.” (4)

This information is extremely important to note when we are talking about nutrition because bacteria come into the body via food, environmental debris trapped in the mucosal linings (air particles) and through interaction and physical contact with other animals (eg. grooming or playing) and inanimate objects. Social behavior in chimpanzees has even been found to greatly influence their microbiome. (5)

For pets, our main focus should not be on avoiding or killing “bad” bacteria but rather providing enough good bacteria to help with the balance of overall bacterial exposure. This is what prevents an overgrowth of pathogenic strains to develop in your pet. It also helps with the overgrowth of yeast (a fungus) which commonly takes over in the absence of adequate symbiotic bacteria. Yeast overgrowth can cause intense itching of the skin and mucosal linings, digestive problems and more. It has been found that incidence of yeast infections and other urogenital (mucosal membrane) infections in women is greatly reduced with the addition of probiotic supplements including lactobacillus. (6) And that’s only one species of good bacteria! There are THOUSANDS living in the body.

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Factors that may disturb the microbiome include poor diet, the use of antibiotics and other medications, underlying metabolic diseases, exposure to environmental toxins and even emotional stress. Animals that fall into any or all of these categories are good candidates for probiotic support.

If your pet is having health issues, a good starting place is to look at their intestinal health and where they are getting their probiotics and their diet. Stay tuned for next week’s blog on how to choose the best probiotic supplements for your pet.

For a GREAT video about microbes, check out this TED Talk by Johnathan Eisen: https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_eisen_meet_your_microbes

References:

(1) https://www.functionalmedicineuniversity.com/public/937.cfm

(2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1500832/

(3) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2841828/

(4) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12239261

(5) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4730854/

(6) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2662373/