Bacteria among us

We need them — possibly more than we know

October 26, 2012

Not so very long ago, some savvy docs figured out that peptic ulcers were caused by bacteria. Kill the bacteria, solve the ulcer problem. Easy, right?

Except that now comes more nuanced science, nearly two decades later, pointing out that the bacterium in question, Helicobacter pylori, is not only benign in most people, but having it might actually help stave off allergies, asthma, and obesity.

As Michael Specter reported recently in the New Yorker, microbiologists are realizing that antibiotics, which are routinely fed to livestock “not to treat illness but as dietary supplements to promote faster growth,” can have the same effect in humans.

In other words, bacteria in our tummies don’t just help us digest our food; they interact with stomach hormones to help us figure out when we’re hungry and when we’re not. Without the right bacterial mix — without H. pylori, perhaps — in our guts, we get fat.

As Martin J. Blaser, a prominent researcher in the field, told Specter, “Bad eating habits are not sufficient to explain the worldwide explosion in obesity.”

Specter’s article isn’t news; the New York Times reported on Blaser’s antibiotics-and-obesity research a year ago, and this past spring, scientists announced a possible link between the decline of H. pylori and the development of diabetes.

Germs. It’s a love-hate relationship.

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