The Human Microbiome Project: When Bad Bacteria Turns Good

When we think of antibiotic misuse, we often think of how it contributes to big name superbugs such as C. diff and MRSA. But what often goes overlooked is how antibiotic misuse affects the many microbes that are beneficial to our health. While the Human Microbiome Project is a step in the right direction towards learning more about combating horrible diseases like C. diff, it is also a huge advancement in terms of understanding which microbes truly benefit us—and which ones we may have been too quick to label as hazardous to our health.

Take for example the germ H. pylori. During the 1980s, it was discovered that H. pylori was a causative agent for peptic ulcers. While this major discovery resulted in the treatment of such individuals by aiming to eradicate H. pylori microbes from the stomach, researchers are now discovering possible adverse implications of this.

Before I begin discussing how the Human Microbiome Project has already impacted our knowledge of H. pylori, I want to make it clear that I am not by any means suggesting that this particular microbe is not hazardous to our health. In other words, I’m not suggesting you go and ingest H. pylori as Barry Marshall did in order to validate his theory about H. pylori and peptic ulcers.

What scientists have long found interesting about H. pylori is the fact that it seems to thrive in the acidic environment of the stomach. While this may have once been viewed as a trait that contributes to the overall negative image associated with H. pylori, researchers are now beginning to consider whether H. pylori’s ability to regulate stomach acid is instead a beneficial effect. Take for example the fact that while the presence of H. pylori as a member of the average gut flora has decreased over the past few decades, the incidences of conditions such as Barrett’s esophagus, acid reflux disease, and esophageal cancer have increased. No correlation has yet been proven empirically, but what is important to recognize here is that there very well may be more adverse effects of antibiotic misuse and overuse than once thought.

Martin Blaser, who has dedicated much of his career to studying H. pylori, is moving forward with the hypothesis that this microbe is in fact a part if the normal flora of the stomach. Blaser’s research focuses on the fact that the overall reduction in the presence of H. pylori within the average stomach has decreased since the discovery of it’s link to ulcers, the incidences of several widespread diseases such as obesity, asthma, and type 2 diabetes have increased. So far, his research suggests that the presence of H. pylori within the gut flora is associated with a decreased risk of asthma in children.

While there are several known causes of obesity, diabetes, and other all-to-common diseases, the important finding here is that we need to give far more credit to the role of the many different microbes that keep us healthy. We know that poor eating habits and stress have adverse effects on our health, but maybe our misunderstanding of the microbes living within us, as well as that of antibiotic misuse, can be equally as devastating to our health.

It has long been known that the healthcare system is more focused on treating diseases once they become a problem, rather than being more proactive in preventing them in the first place. While this trend is definitely beginning to change with the advent of the new healthcare law and several other initiatives, it highlights another important fact: antibiotic misuse and overuse may be problematic with more than just those who are already sick; it is beginning to appear that such misuse may also be a contributing factor in the average person getting sick in the first place.

This is not just in terms of the many resistant superbugs we have unfortunately come to know, but also possibly in terms of several diseases that commonly lead to a decline in health.

Just as overeating, lack of exercise, and poor nutrition are considered lifestyle factors that are detrimental to our health, we need to be more apt to think of antibiotic misuse as another poor behavioral choice. I know that the majority of healthcare professionals out there are well aware of the problems associated with antibiotic misuse, but we need to get the general public more aware of this in order to make a difference for future generations.

It’s not just the responsibility of doctors to prescribe antibiotics only when absolutely necessary; it’s also the patient’s responsibility to take antibiotics exactly as prescribed. Our role as patients includes being sure to avoid accidentally skipping doses, continuing to take the prescription even when the symptoms have ceased, and properly discarding any leftover antibiotics.

If we are aiming to treat the human body as a temple, then we need to be sure to do whatever we can to take care of the beneficial microbes that call this temple a home. Thanks to the Human Microbiome Project, we now know more about which microbes makeup that population, and are one step closer to finding a happy medium in our relationship with the microbiological world.

Image via: Creative Commons

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