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The good, the bad and the ugly of bacteria

These days “bacteria” is a word we hear very often and makes one think of germs and Dettol! There are good ones and bad ones, and even more bizarre, some resistant ones. Let’s take a closer look at the different kinds of bacteria and the bacteria trends of 2019.

Bad news first. The harmful bacteria that causes illnesses such as food poisoning, meningitis and pneumonia are just a few of the bad guys. Bacterial infections happen when a harmful strain of bacteria grow rapidly and damage or kill body tissue and can infect any part of the body. Bacteria can also produce toxins or poison that lead to diseases. Some common names you might heard of include E.coli, streptococcus, staphylococcus and salmonella.

But bacteria are not all bad. Gut health and “good” bacteria have been partners for the last couple of years, but the phrase “microbiome” is the new kid on the block. Having more bacteria in our bodies than cells apparently, it does seem to be of great importance. A microbiome refers to the microbes or bacteria that naturally live in the body, from our gut to the surface of our skins.

Bacteria helps with digestion, supports the immune system, produces vitamins and aids in detoxification, proving why balancing the bacteria in our bodies our so important. When a microbiome is unbalanced, the bad bacteria and yeast override the good bacteria which leads to all kinds of health problems, ranging from weight gain to autoimmune diseases. Yes! Bacteria really do even influence our metabolism and certain types may even lead to obesity. The Firmicutes family of bacteria causes the body to absorb more calories from food… luckily there is also bacteria linked to leanness, Bacteroidetes.

Prebiotics (often prescribed with antibiotics) are essential for good gut health. Prebiotics are fibres that go through our small intestines undigested and are fermented when they reach the colon. Prebiotics increase the “good” bacteria that feeds the beneficial bacteria families, including probiotic bacteria. The fermentation process also helps to reduce the risk of disease and increases over all well-being. Prebiotics can be found in foods such as bananas, oats, leeks, beans, onions, nuts, asparagus, garlic and root vegetables. Green vegetables are seen to improve the variety of healthy bacteria and organisms in the gut. So, the more greens mixed together in that green juice or smoothie, the more benefits you will reap, such as bone density, weight management, brain health, improved immunity and digestive health.

Probiotics are live bacteria that are beneficial and encourage the growth of the good bacteria. Probiotics are naturally created during the fermentation process of foods such as yoghurt, kimchi, kombucha, miso soup and sauerkraut. Probiotics can also be taken in pill form or as drops and are often prescribed while taking antibiotics or added as a supplement into health drinks and yoghurt.

Antibiotics eliminate both the “good and the bad” bacteria. Probiotics help to reproduce the beneficial bacteria in the colon. Probiotics are even believed to help with the gastrointestinal side effects of some medicines and the combating of bacterial growth that causes yeast infections.

There are two main groups of probiotics:

Lactobacillus: Abundant in yoghurt and other fermented foods. Aids in lactose intolerance and diarrhoea.

Bifidobacterium: Naturally found in the large intestine. Fights harmful bacteria in the intestine, boosts the immune system and prevents constipation. May also lessen the symptoms of IBS and other related conditions. Can be found in some dairy products.

Look out for the well-researched strains, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus paracasei, Lactobacillus plantarum, Bifidobacterium longum and Bifidobacterium lactis.

Probiotics are more sensitive when compared to prebiotics as they are affected by time, stomach acid and heat. An excellent source of probiotics is kefir. Kefir is a milk drink made by fermenting kefir grains and contains both Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Seeing that 50 types of bacteria are present in Kefir it will be well worth adding to your diet.

The ugly…the misuse of antibiotics are quickly leading to a health epidemic. The overuse of antibiotics is causing bacteria to become resistant, therefore they are not controlled or killed by the antibiotics anymore and the bacteria continue to multiply. So, when you feel the start of a cold or flu this winter, check with your doctor that it is not a virus. Viruses and bacteria have different mechanisms to replicate and multiply, so antibiotics will have no effect on viruses and just create unnecessary havoc in your microbiome.

Let’s make this a winter of healthy eating and create a healthy microbiome to help keep the flu season at bay.