Improving Immune System Health With The Calming Influence Of Gut Bacteria

2011-02-03 | |
Last updated: 2011-02-03

With the rare exception of the bacteria in yogurt, bacteria are rarely described in any sort of positive light when it comes to human health. This is largely expected when we consider the role that so many types of bacteria play in numerous forms of serious infection. These single cell creatures wreak havoc in medical conditions such as pneumonia, sepsis, tuberculosis and various forms of food poisoning. However, while there are certainly some dangerous bacteria, many bacteria are actually very important to our health. In particular, those inhabiting our digestive system play a significant role.

How Do Gut Bacteria Affect Our Health?

Although our modern fixation on cleanliness and disinfection has too many of us reaching for alcohol wipes and hand cleansing gel at the mere mention of these microscopic bugs, we really have no hope of eliminating bacteria. For every cell that exists in our bodies, there exist another 10 bacteria within us. Our intestines alone hold roughly 160 species of bacteria. At the same time, even if we could eliminate these creatures, we would be doing so at the detriment of our own health.

The reason for this is that various research activities are coming to the same conclusion that the bacteria in our digestive tract strongly affect the operation of our immune systems. The beneficial bacteria in our gut keep the populations of more dangerous bacteria in check. At the same time, they help to moderate the sensitivity of our immune systems so that our immune systems respond most appropriately to threats.

How Do Bacteria Provide Health Benefits?

One example of a bacterium that provides health benefits is the same one that can cause stomach ulcers and stomach cancer under certain conditions, the Helicobacter pylori bacteria (H. pylori). In research from New York University Medical Center, researchers found that individuals with these bacteria in their stomachs had a 40% lower risk of developing asthma as a child. At the same time, the researchers found that those carrying the bacteria had lower allergy sensitivities to pollens and molds. The presence of the bacteria is serving to desensitize our immune systems.

The same bacteria have also been studied for its relationship to Tuberculosis (TB). Stanford University researchers studying the infectious disease in a number of third world countries have found that those who develop TB are less likely to have a strong presence of H. pylori bacteria in their digestive system. In subsequent primate studies, the scientists found that the risks of developing Tuberculosis were more than 3 times higher in those primates that did not have the bacteria in their system. The researchers suspect that the bacteria are enhancing the sensitivity of the immune system to TB.

In addition to its role against TB, the H. pylori bacteria are also of interest with respect to Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Researchers from the University of Michigan have observed that those carrying the bacteria are less sensitive to the effects of Salmonella on the intestines. Salmonella is typically experienced as food poisoning and causes inflammation of the intestinal tract called colitis. The researchers suspect that the H. pylori bacteria is moderating the effects of the immune system in this situation and might even do so against Cholera infections and autoimmune disorders of the digestive system.

While the H. pylori bacteria have received considerable attention in studies of the bacteria from our digestive tracts, they are by no means the only bacteria to have an effect on our immune systems. Researchers studying mice that are predisposed to develop Type 1 Diabetes have found that those raised in a sterile environment developed much more severe Type 1 Diabetes than those mice exposed to “friendly” gut bacteria. The Yale and University of Chicago researchers also found that the exposed mice had a “significantly lower” likelihood of developing Type 1 Diabetes at all. Again, the bacteria appear to moderate the immune system.


Despite the negatives often associated with bacteria, they are not all bad when it comes to human health. Successive research studies have continually found that these bugs play an important role with respect to our immune systems. When the balance of species in the gut is correct, these bacteria help to moderate our immune responses to an appropriate level. Without these bacteria, our immune systems can respond disproportionately leading to health problems. Because of the benefits they provide, it is important to recognize the value of these bacteria.

A future article will look at efforts to “prime” the immune system with introduction of bacteria into our systems. If you have immune system issues, consider sharing your experiences in the health forums.

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Category: Disease Information, General Health

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