Our relationship with the bacteria that call our bodies home is a bit of a David and Goliath story: It is almost unfathomable how something invisible to the human eye can literally take our “gigantic” bodies down when the conditions are right. Anyone who has had a nasty bout of food poisoning or bacterial infection can testify to the power of bacteria.

What goes largely unnoticed, however, is how bacteria makes us healthy – particularly because we can’t see their good work directly. Our bodies are complex ecosystems with bacteria, viruses, and yeasts that can either promote or harm health – so it pays to understand how bacteria helps us. Our fear of microbes has led to an all out assault that kills the beneficial bugs more effectively than the clever critters that cause disease…so read on about the benefits of good bacteria and take a moment’s pause before you slather on the hand sanitizer or antibacterial counter cleaner. Soap and a little elbow grease should suffice!

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1. Bacteria helps you get the most out of the food you eat.

Gut bacteria help with the absorption of minerals such as calcium and iron; they also produce vitamins such as vitamin K and some B vitamins. Bacteria of the lactobacilli genus even produce lactase, the enzyme that helps break down lactose – which many of us cannot break down on our own, leading to discomfort and potential bowel troubles.

2. Bacteria fortifies your gut defenses and improve its function.

Friendly bacteria nestle into the thick mucus layer along your digestive surface and act as guards to strengthen the barrier effect of the gut wall. This barrier effect is critical to prevent the passage of substances and microbes that might otherwise gain access to your body and incite an immune system riot. Bacteria also directly impact the overall functioning of the gut itself. To learn more about how bacteria shape your gut function, this piece in Nature Reviews Immunology is a nice overview.

3. Bacteria fights off troublemakers that can make you sick.

As they hang out, friendly bacteria compete for food and space with the troublemakers that want to take over. Friendly bacteria also produce a host of biochemical ‘weapons’ to help kill the bugs that might otherwise make you sick – like lactic acid, hydrogen peroxide, and bacteriocins. Consider friendly bacteria your knights in slimy armor.

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4. Bacteria can alter your mood.

There is a reason why your digestive system is called your ‘second brain’! Scientists have made fascinating observations about altered bacterial communities and anxiety, depression, and even autism – but at this point there are more questions than answers. Read this overview of the gut-brain connection or watch this amazing Nature of Things episode on autism and bacteria.

5. Bacteria talks to your immune system to help it function better.

There is a deeply beneficial relationship between the immune system and the bacteria that call you home. Bacteria actually ‘talk’ to your immune system to help improve its function. A study published recently in The EMBO Journal helps illuminate how this occurs.

It’s time to fall in love with bacteria!

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