Importance Of Good Bacteria For Good Health

Ever wondered what happens to the good bacteria when you kill the bad ones? Learn all about the importance of good bacteria and how to enable their growth to build immunity. Find out more.

By Dr V V Vivekanand

Importance Of Good Bacteria For Good Health

In 2017, the United States Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) issued a final rule stating antibacterial wash products like soap, foam, gel and hand washes containing certain ingredients cannot be sold over the counter. 

This ban was imposed after studies conducted by the organisation showed these products might be hampering immunity by destroying good bacteria. Plus, there was no scientific proof to suggest that antibacterial ingredients improved the efficacy of these products.

This ban (not applicable in India) applies to antibacterial wash products containing one or more of 19 specific active ingredients, including the most commonly used ingredients – triclosan and triclocarban. Some researchers in the medical fraternity believe triclosan leads to bacterial resistance to antibiotics apart from being linked to liver and inhalation toxicity.

In the context of the latest ruling, it is important for you to understand the difference between good and bad bacteria.

Probiotics: The good warriors

From birth, the human body is exposed to myriad microbes found in the environment. These microbial communities (flora) are called microbiota. A baby’s gut is sterile at birth and is first inhabited by maternal bacteria. Propagation of these bacteria continues through breastfeeding, as breast milk contains both probiotics and prebiotics.

A probiotic is a live bacteria or yeast that is good for health, while a prebiotic is a non-digestible food ingredient that stimulates the growth and activity of good bacteria that are already in the gut. A symbiotic is a product which contains both probiotics and prebiotics.

Lactobacillus, bifidobacterium, strytococcus (all different kinds of bacteria) and yeast-like organisms are examples of probiotics. The factors influencing probiotic colonisation include age, mode of delivery and nature of milk given from birth (breast milk versus formula milk). 

On the other hand, the factors influencing the composition of the flora include age, diet and socio-economic conditions. By the time a child is two years old, the flora in the gut is complete, but it undergoes changes throughout life. Gut microbiotas are very important. They produce some vitamins and also stimulate local and systemic metabolism.

Key benefits of preserving good bacteria

Good bacteria colonise the gut and follow the principle of competitive inhibition (competing with another agent), thereby preventing bad bacteria from acting on the same sites.

Good bacteria act on the cells in the intestine and secrete Immunoglobulin-A, which counteracts the effects of bad bacteria. Due to this, allergic disorders like eczema and asthma are prevented.

In simple terms, the latest ruling is a step towards protecting the good bacteria. But, does it mean that washing hands is not a good practice? Not at all. The US FDA, in a statement released post the ruling reiterated the need to maintain healthy practices to steer clear of harmful germs. “Washing with plain soap and running water remains one of the most important steps consumers can take to avoid getting sick and to prevent spreading germs to others,” a US FDA official release states.

Antibiotics: The non-discriminating warriors

It isn’t just anti-bacterial soap that destroys good bacteria. There’s another culprit too – antibiotics. The discovery of Penicillin in 1928 by Alexander Fleming heralded the ‘Antibiotic Era’. However, the twenty-first century is gaining notoriety as the ‘Antibiotic Resistance Era’ due to the inappropriate use of antibiotics.

An antibiotic is a type of antimicrobial agent. Microbes are extremely small living things that can only be seen with the help of a microscope. They can cause diseases. Antimicrobial agents like antibiotics either inhibit bacterial growth or destroy them. While doing their job, antibiotics can even destroy good bacteria. Antibiotics cannot and do not discriminate between the good and the bad.

Antibiotic abuse and resistance

When a child develops fever, parents generally feel antibiotics are required and may sometimes start treatment without consulting their physicians. Doctors too, at times, may prescribe antibiotics irrationally for the common cold, flu and other minor illnesses. These illnesses are self-limiting and usually caused by viruses. Hence, not treatable by antibiotics, as antibiotics can only kill bacteria and not viruses. Such antibiotic abuse leads to antibiotic resistance.

Hand washing tips:

1. Ensure your child washes hands with plain soap and water before and after: 

  • Each meal or even touching food
  • Playtime 
  • Visits to the restroom
  • Touching pets
  • Coughing, sneezing or blowing the nose 
  • Visiting sick friends/relatives or a trip to the hospital 

2. A regular hand-wash soap/gel is sufficient.

3. Do not encourage excessive use of hand sanitiser.

Ill-effects of overmedication

  • Resistance to commonly-used antibiotics
  • Alteration of gut flora
  • Overdose-related side effects
  • Increased risk of allergic diseases

Antibiotic usage – Dos and Don’ts

  • First and foremost, we should understand that antibiotics are not over-the-counter medicines.
  • Never self-prescribe antibiotics.
  • Never buy an antibiotic without a doctor’s prescription.
  • Never pester your doctor to prescribe antibiotics always.
  • Antibiotics cannot kill viruses. They can kill only bacteria.

So, when it comes to your child’s hygiene and using antibacterial cleansing agents, the adage to keep in mind is ‘everything in moderation’. And as for antibiotics, optimum usage is the key to strong immunity and good health. 

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