Long regarded as one big ewww, bacteria are finally getting their due, thanks to new research that proves the bugs within us have the potential to make or break our health. The potential for far-reaching medical change is high: what scientists find could revolutionize how we fight infection and treat or prevent everything from obesity to cancer.

The Benefits of Bacteria

These days you can hardly find a hand soap that doesn’t tout its antibacterial properties, and Purell has taken up permanent residence in many of our purses.  So it’s understandable if learning that you have three-five pounds of microbes in and on your body makes you feel a bit green.  In the past we tended to think that the absence of microbes made people healthy. But as we’re learning, bacteria are not just a source of disease; they’re a source of health.  Data indicate that the average person hosts more than 10,000 species of organisms, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi. All together, these make up what scientists refer to as your microbiome.


Every person’s microbiome is unique: the product of their genes, the foods they eat, and the environment they’re exposed to.  But people who share certain physical and neurological traits also have similar microbiomes.  Obese individuals’ microbiomes look different from lean individuals; kids with autism have a different type of bacteria in their guts than kids without it; folks who have eczema live with different kinds of bugs on their skin than those who don’t.  As more and more people have their microbiomes mapped, scientists will be able to make more and more solid connections between specific bacteria and health conditions.


We’ve long known that if your body’s natural balance of bacterial is upset (whether by a course of antibiotics or an awful case of food poisoning); you can end up with diarrhea.  But new research suggests that colon cancer, which kills about 50,000 people each year, could be another, more dire, outcome.  Studies have found that patients with colorectal cancer have high levels or E. coli bacteria, the infamous fecal germs guilty of causing major outbreaks of food poisoning.  While scientists are still studying the exact role bacteria play in the cancer’s development (does an overgrowth of E. coli cause cancer?  Does cancer cause the overgrowth?), one thing’s for sure: Increased levels of bacterias signal trouble.  The hope is that by monitoring bacteria levels in a person at risk of disease—in this case colon cancer, but potentially diabetes, or rheumatoid arthritis—doctors will catch these conditions in their very early stages, and may be able to treat them simply by correcting the bacterial imbalance.


The same may be true for fighting obesity.  Research indicates that antibiotics may alter the mix of bacteria in the gut, leading to a higher concentration of bugs that can extract more calories from food.


While scientists are still a long way from determining the perfect balance of bacteria for optimal health, one condition has been spectacularly responsive to microbiome intervention. For people plagued with a bacterial infection that can cause potentially life-threatening diarrhea, Fecal Transplant—taking the feces of healthy people and introducing them into the guts of patients—led to a cure 94 percent of the time.  By comparison, antibiotics worked on only 31 percent of patients.  Doctors believe the “good” microbes in healthy poop take root in the sick person’s body, where they restore the normal balance of bacteria and kill the dangerous bugs.


As unpleasant as the procedure may seem, its results highlight why the human microbiome has earned its place as a groundbreaking new frontier in medicine. Unlike your genome, which is set from birth, your microbiome is very changeable.  Imagine a future in which we treat infections such as strep throat not with potent doses of antibiotics that wipe out both good and bad bacteria, but with a pill that fights off nasty terms by reseeding your body with helpful ones.  As we continue to unravel the role these microbes play within our bodies, we have the potential to open up a whole new avenue for wellness.