Bacteria are single-celled microorganisms found everywhere on Earth – water, soil, plants and in most parts of your body. These tiny organisms have struggled against a bad reputation since the 1800s when the father of microbiology, Louis Pasteur, began experiments that would change our view of our bodies. His experiments showed that the growth of bacteria was what spoiled things like milk and beer, and he invented pasteurization, the process of heating milk to kill the bacteria and molds. From those first forays into microbiology, Pasteur proposed that bacteria cause disease in people, which launched a field that today does much to keep you healthy.
You’ll find bacteria throughout your body — on your skin, in your mouth, gastrointestinal tract and vagina, for instance. There are 10 times as many bacteria as human cells in the body (10 to the power of 14)…100 trillion. Around a thousand different types can be found on the skin and in the GI tract.
The bacteria that populate the GI tract are known as the gut microbiota or gut flora. Most of the bacteria in the digestive system are found in the colon. Bacteria cannot survive in the stomach because of the acidic environment and peristalsis (intestinal contractions) means bacteria don’t hang out much in the small bowel.
The gut microbiota play a key role in nutrition by synthesizing vitamins (thiamine, folic acid, pyridoxine, vitamin K), producing digestive enzymes and helping with absorption of nutrients like calcium, magnesium and iron).In addition, the gut microbiota help to maintain the integrity of the colonic mucosa and provide a major source of energy to the epithelial cells by converting unabsorbed sugars into short-chain fatty acids that provide energy for the epithelial cells to regenerate themselves. Gut flora also help support the immune system. The metabolic activity generated by these bacteria is equal to that of a virtual organ, leading to gut bacteria being referred to as the “forgotten organ.”
Take care of the good bacteria in your gut. Next time I’ll discuss how probiotics – good bacteria – can assist in your fight against diarrhea.
To your health,
Dr. Shekhar Challa
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