‘………..By Becky Striepe
Our bodies are home to a complex, vast community of microorganisms, and there is mounting research looking at how how these bacteria and viruses are connected to our overall health.
You probably already know that good bacteria are a key part of a healthy gut, but it turns out that our bodies may be more bacteria than human. Sort of. Microorganisms only account for about three percent of our body mass, but because these cells are around 10,000 times smaller than human cells, there are actually more of them in and on our bodies than there are human cells.
I’ll give you a moment to go wash your hands.
Just like in our guts, though, most of these microorganisms are either harmless or beneficial to our bodies. And while researchers are identifying helpful and harmful microorganisms all the time, figuring out how they’re doing what they do is a whole different story.
Bacteria get most of the glory when we’re talking about beneficial microorganisms, but our bodies also house beneficial viruses. Some of these viruses attack harmful bacteria, but there are many more that researchers still need to study. According to Professor of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology Marilyn Roosnick, PhD, “The gastrointestinal tracts of mammals are plush with viruses. So far, little is known about how these viruses affect their hosts, but their sheer number and diversity suggest that they have important functions.”
The community of microbes living on our bodies is so complex that scientists still don’t know exactly how they interact with us. Some microbes, for example, may be linked to obesity, but it’s hard to suss out exactly how they’re interacting with our bodies and with the other microbes that live there.
Even prebiotics and probiotics, which we accept as pretty well-studied, need a lot more research. There’s evidence that gut bacteria are linked to a slew of medical conditions, but a recent release the National Institutes of Health explained that there are still “fundamental knowledge gaps” about how these good bacteria work and how they impact our overall health.
That doesn’t mean you should pour out your kombucha and skip the sauerkraut, though. There is a a lot that researchers don’t know, but there’s also a lot that they have discovered about how bacteria impact our overall health. This graphic from The Huffington Post summarizes some of what researchers have concluded about good bacteria.
While gut bacteria has been studied extensively, our bellies aren’t the only place where bacteria and viruses live and interact with us. There are microbes on our skin, for example, that are harmless to us but protect us from infections that would take root if they weren’t there.
Our personal ecosystems are complex, and what’s becoming more and more clear is that these microorganisms are inextricably linked to our health. We’re just not totally sure how. Yet.