By Jessica ter Haar, Ph.D., scientific director of the International Probiotics Association
If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it is that proper hygiene is vital to keeping ourselves and the members of our communities safe and healthy. We are constantly reminded of the need to disinfect our hands, avoid touching our faces, keep our distance and take COVID-19 safety measures seriously.
But could all the hand washing, antibacterial cleansing and social distancing cause another health problem?
It may seem counterintuitive, but the extreme clean living our society has adopted could in fact make our body’s innate immune system weaker. Many people have entered into a sort of “microbe-phobia” to avoid the coronavirus, but it is important to remember that not all microbes are bad. In fact, many are essential for good health.
Sterilizing everything can have the unintended negative consequence of eradicating the good germs that we would normally be exposed to in our daily lives. In doing so, we are weakening our body’s own natural defenses to everyday threats.
Microbes—including bacteria, fungi, and viruses—are invisible to the naked eye, and our bodies host trillions of these microorganisms inside and out. Scientifically, this population is known as the microbiome. The gut microbiome, for example, is a concept that has been around for centuries but has only been commonly used in conversation since the early 2000s.
Some microbes are harmful and can make us sick, but many keep us healthy and should not be feared but appreciated. Understanding the role of the human microbiome has been complicated further by the confusion surrounding terminology – a big one being the differences between bacteria, fungi and viruses. It’s important to know more about them and how they differ when considering good versus bad microbes.
Bacteria are single-cell organisms, and most are not dangerous to humans. In fact, less than 1% of all bacteria are responsible for disease. Many bacteria live in our bodies and help us stay healthy. Bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics, which kill the bacteria or at least stop the bad bacteria from multiplying.
Fungi are single-celled or multi-celled organisms that are similar to bacteria in that they live in different environments and cause disease. Fungal infections can become life-threatening if the immune system is weak, but certain fungi also have many beneficial qualities. The discovery of penicillin, a type of fungus, was due to a variety of mold which is now used to produce this antibiotic.
Viruses, including the coronavirus, are more challenging. They have no cells of their own and instead rely on host cells to multiply and replicate. Many viruses peacefully co-exist with humans, but some can cause diseases, including the relatively harmless common cold, while others can be deadly and bring about serious diseases like AIDS, measles and COVID-19. It is difficult to fight a virus with medication, which is why vaccinations are often used to support the immune system to better prepare the body to fight the virus.
As we begin practicing good hygiene and social distancing recommendations, life is feeling far from normal. But similar to the emotional effects of our isolation, by not living life, we are failing to be exposed to the good natural microbes needed to support our immune system’s defenses, metabolism, digestion and the brain’s ability to modulate mood and focus.
The question is, how can we continue hygiene measures to prevent COVID-19 without weakening our immune systems?
This is where probiotics come in. Probiotics can be the hero in our current germophobic environment to help counter the lack of microbe exposure and stimulate our body’s own bacterial population in the gut microbiome and cells. Probiotics can literally wake up sleepy bacteria and cells and assist in protecting our health.
If you are unfamiliar, probiotics are live microorganisms that, when taken in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit to the host. Experts from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and WHO created this definition of probiotics, and to date, probiotics have more than 8,000 different scientific research studies indexed by PubMed.
Something as simple as a probiotic supplement can help compensate for our ultra-clean lifestyles and add beneficial microorganisms to our daily health arsenal. Probiotics add to the functional diversity of healthy microbes within our microbiome that bolster our immune system and overall health resilience. Probiotics have quickly risen in popularity and took center stage in the past decade, primarily because of how probiotics make people feel and how they work.
According to research, people report feeling better when they are taking a probiotic, which makes perfect sense because when the gut is happy, the rest of the body seems to be in synchronicity. But let’s not forget that probiotics can also work beyond the gut. There is a lot of probiotic science that continues to evolve, and everything seems to point to positive health outcomes.
Many of the microorganisms in probiotic supplements, including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, are similar to those naturally found in the body. Different types of probiotics have many different effects on the body like helping to maintain balance of good bacteria; producing certain vitamins and other substances; impacting our mood; and regulating weight.
Interestingly, studies of probiotics have shown beneficial immune impacts. While no probiotic has been found to treat COVID-19, research studies are currently assessing their impact. To date, more than 1,600 human clinical trials have been published about probiotics on ClinicalTrials.gov and the International Clinical Trials Registry Platform of WHO databases. The International Probiotics Association is another great resource for updates on studies and new findings with probiotics.
As we wait for life to return to normal, taking something as simple as a probiotic supplement can help our immune systems compensate for an ultra-clean lifestyle and put our minds at ease as we take steps forward to boost our health during these uncertain and challenging times. In learning more about microbes, we can embrace the power of these organisms, take the fear out of equation and develop a plan to keep our immunities strong in the face of any health crisis.
About Jessica ter Haar, Ph.D.,
Jessica ter Haar is director of scientific affairs for the International Probiotics Association (IPA) and is a microbiology expert and probiotic educator focused on digestive and women’s health. She holds a doctorate from the University of Groningen in medical microbiology and probiotics for vaginal infections, and a master’s degree in nutrition and nutraceutical sciences from the University of Guelph. Ter Haar is also the founder and chairwoman of “Women and their Microbes,” a scientific conference directed at scientists, clinicians and industry professionals focused on helping women achieve their best possible microbial health during every stage of life. In her professional work with probiotics, she uses her thorough knowledge base to underscore the importance of probiotics, make scientific knowledge accessible, and address unmet medical and research needs. Additionally, ter Haar consults with a variety of companies in the probiotic, pharmaceutical and food industries on strategies to clearly communicate, valorize and leverage scientific benefits and best practices.