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Getting Used to Your Germs

Fear of germs has translated into a multimillion-dollar industry – the hand sanitizer business alone is earning an estimated $400 million-plus each year, according to expert statistics. And that doesn’t include the wipes and soaps that advertise themselves as anti-bacterial.

That rise has been fueled by a fear of all germs. But, according to the Harvard Women’s Health Watch, microorganisms that inhabit your body can be valuable allies in reducing inflammation and treating disease.

And, the publication says, it’s now obvious that the “war on microbes” could actually hurt our health.

“Knowing which sorts of microbes are normally found in healthy people can help us understand the roles that changes in microbe populations play in disease,” Dr. Curtis Huttenhower, associate professor of computational biology and bioinformatics in the Department of Biostatistics at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told the Health Watch.

Huttenhower contributes to the National Institutes of Health Human Microbiome Project—part of a global effort to identify at least 600 types of bacteria, fungi, and yeast we carry. The investigators working on the project aim to show how the microbes differ and how changes are in their colonies is associated with the development of diseases.

According to the Health Watch, the function of microbes are very similar to our body cells. They take in nutrients and break them down to supply the energy they need to grow. In the process, they secrete molecules that are taken in by our body cells.

Those effects can be either good or bad. The Health Watch publication gives as an example Clostridium tetani—the bacterium responsible for tetanus—which secretes a toxin that can lead to lockjaw. But bifidobacterium, which digests dietary fiber in the colon, produces acids that help control inflammation. Additionally, the vaginal microbe Lactobacillus produces lactic acid, which fights bacteria that causes vaginal infections.

But our “microbial populations” aren’t uniform among all of us. Some factors influencing their diversity include our age, our diet, where we live and who we live with. For example, Health Watch says, people who live on farms are likely to have different microbes from city residents. People who eat plant-based diets such as the Mediterranean and traditional Asian diet have a higher percentage of “good” bacteria than do those who eat red meat, sugar and processed foods.

Although scientific research is still ongoing, the Harvard Women’s Health Watch suggests you follow these current steps:

Eat a Mediterranean-style diet. This includes fruits, green leafy vegetables, olive oil, tomatoes, and fish. These are all part of the Mediterranean diet. But, the Harvard experts caution, the diet won’t do you any good if you’re also eating a lot of sugar, red meat, and refined carbohydrates.