Bacteria have become very big business. The probiotics market was estimated to be worth $48.38 billion in 2018 and is continuing to grow at a rapid rate. Which is weird when you think about the fact that these things appear for free all around us, without us having to do much. But you don’t need to invest in your bacteria – you can get many of them for free. Before you go ahead and lick the kitchen floor, however, there’s a catch: some of those freebie bacteria can also kill you. Tetanus and gangrene are caused by bacteria. And then there are those all-pervasive ones, Escherichia Coli, found in all kinds of places from the bathroom doorknob to your unwashed lettuce, and MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) which is notorious for being an infection transmitted during hospital stays. So before you go ahead and start sizing up odd objects to taste in the name of boosting your bacterial health, find out exactly how bacteria can help give you clearer skin, lose weight more easily and even build more muscle.
Where are they?
Bacteria are everywhere. Literally. Crawling on your skin right now (okay, they don’t have legs, but you know what we mean), inside you, on your phone or laptop, the kitchen counter… everywhere. A single millimeter of fresh water contains a million bacterial cells and a gram of soil around 40 million, and they’re even floating around in the air – they’ve even been found at 30 miles up in the stratosphere. We can’t exist without bacteria, they’re responsible for everything from breaking down plant matter –and so producing soil for plants to grow – to eating the steel and iron of sunken ships to making it snow. It’s not a fairytale – when scientists study snowflakes on a mountain they found that 70% had a bacteria at the center, helping it to form. In fact, they even pinpointed a specific type of bacteria that’s especially good at forming the flakes – Pseudomonas syringae. They’re so resilient they’ve been shown to survive in space, and they can even survive radiation 2000 times more powerful than a human can endure.
Happy gut, healthy everything
It’s easy to forget about the health of your innards – you look in the mirror and see how healthy your skin is, your hair, your eyes, your muscles, but you don’t often consider what’s going on inside you. But just as focusing on your core strength is key if you want to get strong overall, focusing on your gut health is key if you want to be healthy in pretty much any way. Because healthy gut bacteria fight inflammation they have an impact on pretty much any kind of health issue you can name – spotty skin, colds and flu, heart disease, breast cancer and even depression.
The route to happiness is via your gut
They say the way to a man’s heart may be via his stomach – pretty sure that’s true for women too – but the mind is probably the bigger factor. Research from Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium found people who suffer with depression tend to have a lack of certain gut bacteria – specifically coproccus and dialister. According to the report, published in >Nature Microbiology, these two gut bacteria were linked to a better quality of life, even after other factors such as medication, age, sex were taken into account. Backing this up, another study, this time from Holland, found the same two microbes were lacking in people with depression. The researchers from Belgium investigated further and discovered that coprococcus has an impact on pathways leading to the brain and the production of dopamine. While they haven’t yet been able to show how or why it affects dopamine, the fact that dopamine production is an important factor in depression suggests that this could be a key finding.
Probiotics also send chemicals from your gut that stimulate the production of serotonin. Research published in the journal >Nature Microbiology indicates specific gut bacteria work within the intestinal system to help your body produce serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, which means it passes messages from one part of your body and your neurons within your nervous system. As a transmitter that relates to emotions, serotonin is key in happiness and overall feelings of contentment. And around 90% of it is produced right there in your gut. The bacteria that does the magic? Turicibacter sanguinis. You won’t find that listed on your pot of yogurt, however, as the bacteria is mostly found in the guts of animals.
Bacteria help prevent weight gain
It’s all about variety and abundance when it comes to staying slim and bacteria in your gut. A study published in the journal >Cell found that slim individuals have more of a specific bacteria, christensenellaceae than other people. Most of us (around 90%) have this bacteria, but in varying quantities. You can help your gut flora to multiply quite easily – first, avoid antibiotics, which will kill off good bacteria along with bad. There are other bacteria too that help keep those skinny folks that way. In fact, according to research from the Washington University School of Medicine, lean people have 70% more bacteria and more diverse bacteria too than that of less healthy overweight people. This effect is so great that researchers were able to predict who out of sets of twins would be overweight and who would not, based only on their gut microbiota.
Some bacteria that are linked to negative effects, such as Helicobacter pylori, for example, have hidden benefits too. H. Pylori causes ulcers in some people and has been linked to stomach cancer too. Antibiotics help kill the bacteria off, leaving those suffering with H. Pylori better off… except that H. Pylori plays an important role in slowing down your body’s production of ghrelin. Ghrelin is your hunger hormone and so without H. Pylori to keep it in check, it can get out of control leaving you feeling hungry and overeating, which in turn leads to weight gain. Unfortunately, for those who suffer with H. Pylori in their bodies, the only option is to be aware of this issue and to try and control ghrelin levels in other ways. Research from the >American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that high-protein meals helped decrease post-eating ghrelin release, compared to high-carb meals.
Your friends in the fight against flu
Any virus or bad bacteria that enters your body has a far better chance of getting you seriously ill if your intestinal lining is more permeable than it should be as it allows the passing of dangerous substances. And guess what? Probiotics work to help keep your intestine healthy so your body has full control of what goes in and what comes out.
The one that gives you muscle
At first it might seem a bit odd that a tiny bacteria living in your gut might have an impact on muscle growth, but when you consider that protein you eat, along with other muscle-friendly nutrients such as iron and zinc, need to be digested efficiently in order for your muscles to have the right nutrients to grow, it’s actually pretty obvious that they’d have an impact. Research from the National Taiwan Sports University shows this. Taiwanese scientists gave one group of mice lactobacillus plantarum, and another group the same food and mousey lifestyle as the other group. After just six weeks, the bacteria group had increased muscle mass and their fat mass had dropped. It gets even better, the bacteria mice also showed more muscle fibers. This happened despite having the same exercise as the other mice. Perhaps even more exciting is that the bacteria group were able to last longer during an endurance test too (swimming). They also had less lactic acid in their bloodstream too.
Luckily, this is a bacteria that’s pretty easy to get hold of. You simply need to go German or Taiwanese to fill up on this muscle-friendly bacteria. It’s found both in sauerkraut and Taiwanese pickled cabbage. That intense vinegary taste is what you’re looking for, a sure sign that the bacteria has developed. Delicious with beef stew and a big dollop of sour cream on top.
Feed your babies
So now you’ve got your head around the idea of all these living beings working hard inside you to process the food you shovel in, consider nurturing them. You can do this in two ways: by eating more babies (bacteria) to enhance the population; or by feeding the babies you’ve already got inside you.
Increasing the variety and number of bacteria shouldn’t be difficult – it simply involves eating more bacteria-rich foods. But perhaps you’re a control freak who wants to know exactly which foods will provide which bacteria.
- infantis, for example, has been shown to help rats relax and you can find that one in live yogurt. L. Plantarum, increases serotonin levels, and specific variety of it – L.plantarum TWK10 has been shown to enhance endurance. So to add more L. Plantarum to your diet, eat sauerkraut or kimchi. L. reuteri has also been shown to help ease pain symptoms and you’ll find that in yogurt and non-pasteurized cheeses. But some bacteria, such as L. plantarum TWK10, may not be readily available in foods you can find in the supermarket, and for those you can buy a probiotic.
Take it easy though – flushing huge quantities of probiotics through your digestive system in one go might give your body a bit of a shock. Some people report stomach ache, bloating and gas when they’ve taken a hefty dose of probiotics for the first time. So start with a low dose of around 1 billion colony forming units (CFUs) and work your way up to more gradually. And take them before a meal as this, according to research from the National Institutes of Health provides the biggest benefits.
Finally, to feed your growing population of bacteria, you’ll need more good fiber. They’ll flourish if you give them plenty to feed on, so eat raspberries, green peas and broccoli, all fiber-rich. Add some whole grains in the form of brown rice or whole wheat to your diet and you’ll also promote the growth of specific bacteria bifidobacterial, lactobacilli and Bacteroidetes. In less time than it takes to make a baby, you’ll have a whole nursery full of bacteria growing in your gut. All without doing anything other than eating. Some good things in life really are free after all.