Bacteria has got your back - Here's how

Author: Leigh van den Berg

When you hear the word ‘bacteria’ you might immediately think of disease-causing germs. Thing is, not all bacteria are harmful. In fact, there are many types that are actually beneficial and currently enjoying a microscopic block party in your intestines. If you’re playing host to more good bacteria than bad, your gut is considered ‘healthy’ or ‘balanced’, something that can go a long way towards improving your immune system. 


‘When your gut is healthy, it keeps any foreign invaders in food from getting into the bloodstream. It also protects you from airborne viruses and bacteria,’, explains Dr Christiane Northrup, author of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom (Bantam, 1998). ‘It’s your first line of defence against bugs and other organisms that can make you ill’.

But wait, there’s more!

Your gut isn’t the only place you’ll find good bacteria. It also exists on the surface of your skin. “A healthy microbiome can protect against skin infection by preventing the overgrowth of pathogenic organisms," says dermatologist Toral Patel. "It can also help keep inflammation in check, promote wound healing, and act as a barrier to some allergens and environmental toxins."  Alas, too many of us use harsh antibacterial cleansing products and while this eliminates any bad bacteria, such as the type that causes pimples, it also wipes out the good guys. “When you over cleanse and strip the skin, you remove not only natural oils but the healthy bacteria that live on your complexion,” says dermatologist Whitney Bowe. 


So, how do you bring back the balance? According to Bowe, you should take it easy when it comes to cleansers and look out for skincare products that contain probiotics. Dermatologist Erin Gilbert agrees. “Topical forms of probiotics contain bacteria or bacterial fragments that interact with receptors found on cells within the skin,” she says. “This interaction can set off responses that reduce inflammation, boost the skin’s immunity and likely even induce collagen synthesis.”

Next gen bacteria

Healthy gut and skin aside, new studies published in The Pharmaceutical Journal are proving that bacteria can be useful when it comes to diagnosing diseases, including cancer. 

‘Researchers have genetically modified Escherichia coli bacteria to emit light in the presence of tumours or glucose,’ says pharmacist Steve Bremer. ‘In the first experiment, E coli that grew on particular types of tumour while ignoring healthy tissue were harvested from a readily available probiotic. The bacteria were modified to produce an easily detectable enzyme and given to mice with liver tumours. The mouse urine changed colour or gave off light depending on which additional substances were added to the signalling system.’

The potential to pick up on cancerous tissue is one thing, but bacteria also have the ability to help kill it. A report published in the National Centre for Biotechnology Information found that certain types of bacteria have the potential to be modified to become cancer-killing machines. For example, bacteria can be engineered to express molecules that bind to “death” receptors on the surface of the cancer cell, causing it to self-destruct. 

It’s also possible to bind radioisotopes to antibodies that cling to the surface of bacteria, in this instance, listeria. These ‘loaded’ bacteria then migrate specifically to tumour tissues and serve up a targeted dose of radiation. 

Ultimately, while bacteria often gets a bad rap, it can do wonders for your gut and skin health. Better yet, it might one day save your life. 




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