Bacteria have copped some bad press over the years. For many of us, the word 'bacteria' makes us reach for the bleach, but these little single-cell micro-organisms are a natural part of our bodies and important to our health.
Bacteria were among the first forms of life on Earth and exist in mind-boggling variety. In fact, if you look at it a certain way, they're the dominant life form here—it's estimated that bacteria make up a larger percentage of Earth's active biomass than plants or animals.
Back in the 1860s, Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek invented a new sort of microscope, and observed for the first time the huge crowds of micro-organisms living peacefully in and on our bodies. (In his dedication to science, Leeuwenhoek once went for days without cleaning his teeth so he'd have some juicy bacteria to investigate.)
Leeuwenhoek's work led to the discovery of the microbiome, the complex ecosystem of useful micro-organisms which dwell inside us all. These trillions of bacteria and other microbiota have evolved along with us, and are deeply invested in our survival. Rather than causing illness, our friendly bacteria form an important part of our immune system, and help us fight off their sometimes dangerous cousins.
For centuries it was thought that diseases such as cholera and the Black Death were caused by foul-smelling vapours. This led to people walking through plague-ridden streets with flower bags pressed to their noses, believing that the pleasant scent could prevent infection by bad air.
Leeuwenhoek's discovery reshaped scientific understanding, renewing interest in the idea that diseases spread via bacteria, a theory which had been met with a massive shrug when Girolamo Fracastoro proposed it in the sixteenth century.
With the discovery of antibiotics in the twentieth century, the fight against bacterial infection began in earnest, but these scientific advances had a lingering effect on the public imagination. With the increased focus on sterilisation and sanitation, bacteria became strongly associated in our minds with disease and danger.
Recently, we've started to see that the war on bacteria has come at a cost. In 1977, David Strachan proposed the hygiene hypothesis. Initially, this hypothesis argued that a lack of early childhood exposure to hostile micro-organisms could increase the risk of allergies and other immune disorders. But don't start rubbing your kids on hospital floors just yet. Most modern interpretations argue that we need more exposure to beneficial or neutral bacteria rather than the nasty ones.
A healthy immune system is linked to a diverse microbiome, but it seems modern living is reducing the diversity of our intestinal zoo. When compared to hunter-gatherer societies such as the Hadza people of Tanzania, for instance, the average Western gut shows far less bacterial variety.
What's causing this, and how can we help fix it? Part of the answer lies in what we eat. Modern food practices mean we can no longer rely on our diet to supply bacterial diversity. Processed foods aren't doing us any favours, making it difficult to maintain a balanced, fibre-rich diet.
Meanwhile, techniques such as sterilisation and pasteurisation, which do good work in killing off nasties like salmonella and listeria, can reduce our natural exposure to beneficial bacteria via the food chain.
Some are seeking to restore the balance by looking to the past. From kimchi to sauerkraut, it seems every culture has a traditional form of food fermentation. Still, you may have to roll up your sleeves and do your own fermenting to reap the microfloral reward. Fermented foods sold in supermarkets have often been pasteurised and stripped of their bacterial benefits.
Another way to maintain bacterial diversity comes in the form of probiotics. Probiotics are living bacteria designed to support the microbiome and maintain healthy levels of beneficial microflora. The Life-Space Broad Spectrum range offers multiple strains, which can provide a range of health benefits through more diverse biological activity.
For a high strength product, check out the new Life-Space Triple Strength Probiotic, containing 15 premium bacterial strains, with 96 billion colony-forming units in every dose.
Probiotics can help you maintain a healthy immune system, support your digestive health, and assist you on the path to bacterial diversity. Be proud of your bacteria!
Always read the label. Follow the directions for use.