Not All Germs Are Bad

The word “germ” tends to have a very negative image today, but in truth, germs can actually be healthy and beneficial. Of course you want to kill the bad germs, but in doing so, it will be extremely beneficial to you to let the good ones survive.

What Are Germs?

Germs are tiny living organisms that can cause disease. Germs do not just affect humans; they can affect plants and animals, too. These organisms are typically classified in four different categories:

  • Bacteria. These one-celled organisms feed off of the surroundings in their environment and can cause infections, such as strep throat and cavities. But not all bacteria are bad, and the bacteria in your gut are highly beneficial.

  • Viruses. If a virus is not located inside a living cell, called a host, it cannot live for very long. If a virus does get into your body, though, it can reproduce and cause illnesses such as the flu and chicken pox.

  • Fungi. Made up of many cells and feeding off of humans, fungi like to live in damp, warm places, and are the cause of conditions such as athlete's foot.

  • Protozoa. Typically found in water, these one-celled organisms can cause intestinal problems such as cramps, diarrhea, and nausea.

Beneficial Bacteria

There are 100 trillion bacterial cells in your body right now—ten times the number of human cells that are in your body. Bacteria are thriving on your skin and in your gut, rapidly multiplying before quickly dying off, but do not worry. These bacteria are something that you want to have.

Your gut, which includes your small and large intestines and colon, is home to trillions of beneficial bacteria. These bacteria are the very things that help you digest your food. Without good bacteria, you would not be able to break down plant starches. In fact, the amount of bacteria that are in your gut could be linked to your risk for obesity, according to researchers such as Ruth Ley at Cornell University's Department of Microbiology. If your body is unable to process foods because of a lack of good bacteria, it could possibly lead to weight gain and obesity, among other diseases.

Bacteria thrive on your skin, too, where they create an invisible barrier to protect your body from harmful elements. Dr. Julia Segre, with the National Human Genome Research Institute, found that in the crook of your elbow, there are a variety of different types of bacteria that moisturize the skin by digesting the fats that your skin produces. Even if you wash this area of your skin, more than one million bacteria will still exist in each square centimeter of the crook of your elbow. By digesting naturally occurring skin fats, bacteria on all areas of your skin help protect your skin from chapping and cracking, which would allow harmful germs to enter and take hold.

The National Institute of Health's Common Fund has started the Human Microbiome Project (https://commonfund.nih.gov/hmp) to study the germs, including beneficial bacteria, that are commonly found in nasal passages, oral cavities, the skin, gastrointestinal tract, and urogenital tract and understand how they affect our health and whether they can be altered to help fight disease.

Increasing Your Bacteria

Both on your skin and in your gut, the more beneficial bacteria there are, the less room there is for bad bacteria to come in and multiply. So how can you increase the amount of good bacteria in your system? It all depends on what you eat and the supplements you might take.

Probiotics and prebiotics can help stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria in your body. While probiotics are the actual living organisms, prebiotics are just nondigestible foods that aid in the growth of bacteria. Both probiotics and prebiotics can be added to foods that tout the claims of increasing your beneficial gut bacteria, such as certain yogurt brands or drinks. Probiotics can also be sold in a supplement form, such as in a capsule or a powder.

You do not need to buy specialty foods with marketing claims, though, in order to increase your healthy bacteria levels. You just need to eat the right types of foods. Probiotics can be naturally found in foods such as:

  • Yogurt

  • Miso

  • Tempeh

  • Fermented and unfermented milk

Prebiotics, because they are undigestible food ingredients, are typically found in high fiber foods, such as:

  • Wheat and whole grains, including oatmeal

  • Onions

  • Garlic

  • Leeks

  • Greens, such as chard and kale

  • Artichokes

  • Bananas

  • Flax

  • Barley

  • Legumes

Limit Antibiotics

Your body is filled with beneficial bacteria that it needs to survive and thrive. Every time you take an antibiotic, though, both the bad bacteria and good bacteria are killed off, altering your chemical makeup. While sometimes it is necessary to take an antibiotic, many times antibiotics are prescribed when they are not necessary because patients demand them and doctors relent and write prescriptions for them.

Antibiotics are necessary for bacterial infections, such as strep throat, urinary tract infections, wound and skin infections, some ear infections, and severe sinus infections. Typically, the only true way to know if an infection is caused by bacteria is to take a test, such as a throat culture.

Viral infections, which are caused by viruses and not bacteria, will not respond to antibiotic use. Viral infections can include the flu, most coughs, most ear infections, colds, most sore throats, bronchitis, and stomach flu. The American College of Physicians estimates that more than 133 million courses of antibiotics are prescribed to patients in nonhospital settings each year, yet up to 50 percent of those prescriptions are thought to be unnecessary because they are given for viral infections. If you are sick and visit a doctor who wants to give you a prescription, ask if an antibiotic is necessary and discuss your concerns with her.

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