We have a very strange sort of schizo-relationship with bacteria in our culture. On the one hand, there’s a tremendous amount of phobia, a tremendous number of bottles of Purell purchased, and the vast, vast majority of these bacteria that people are worried about are harmless in the case of things that you’re touching.
Bacteria are mainly a concern if they’re pathogens or if they make their way into the food that is sitting out in what is called 'the danger zone' and they multiply to a level of thousands or hundreds of thousands. Then they can make you sick. A handful, however, are harmless.
On the flip side of that is now we’re realizing that the microbiome inside us is not just something we should be accepting of but we should be grateful for, because it teaches our immune systems how to work. It keeps us healthy.
One of the most exciting developments in terms of treating people with chronic diarrhea from a certain bacteria is the fecal transplant. It’s very simple and very effective and it’s practically free, because it’s, you know, crap. And you would otherwise flush it down the toilet.
It’s taken a long time for us to get to these treatments – not just because of the yuck factor, though I think that was part of it. There’s kind of an intuitive revulsion to the concept of taking the contents of someone else’s colon and putting them into another person. But partly it’s because of the way the health care system works. You’ve got to get approval. There’s no pharmaceutical company behind it. Nobody stands to make money from it. So that’s also why it’s taken a while to catch on.
But the taboo is starting to break down. People are starting to say openly, “Oh yeah, I heard about a fecal transplant. I saw that on the news.” So now people who have chronic diarrhea and inflammation, they know that there are therapies.
They know that there’s a cure and they are probably encouraged to come forward. So there is something positive to be said about breaking down taboos, especially about bacteria. There’s this statistic that gets tossed around a lot: for every one cell of you there are nine cells of them. And that is a mind-blowing thing to think about. They are part of you. It’s like a functioning organ and you don’t want to be just willy nilly taking antibiotics and wiping it out. That’s not good to do.
So appreciate your germs, people. They’re part of you and there are treatments being tried out using bacteria therapy for irritable bowel, for weight loss. Because there’s really no downside to trying it. It’s being tried as a therapy for a lot of different conditions.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.