My body (and yours) contains 2 quadrillion bugs... and I love 'em!

Recently, I made my annual pre-June visit to my allergy/asthma doctor to make sure I was prepared for my worst month, June.

It’s nearly mid-July, and all the prescriptions he wrote me are still sitting in my backpack unused. Hopefully they’ll stay there.

That’s partly because I now prevent many asthma problems by regularly taking cheap non-prescription allergy medicine. Prevention always beats treating symptoms.

But when I saw my doctor this year, I also had a lingering cough that he considered pneumonia. He quickly whipped out his pad and prescribed an antibiotic. I told him how attached I’ve grown to the HUNDREDS OF TRILLIONS of bacteria that live on and in me and said I didn’t want to do them any harm. Most serve as my loyal defenders against harmful bugs. So he wrote me a prescription for an antibiotic that is supposedly more targeted at the gut. But I still didn’t want to take antibiotics because I felt my body was healing itself and speeding up the process wasn’t worth nuking my friends.

The average human is composed of about 100 trillion cells. That’s a big number: 100,000,000 times 1 million! But our bodies also contain between 1,000 trillion and 2,000 trillion bacteria!!! And those little guys can really affect our health:

In 2008, Dr. Khoruts, a gastroenterologist at the University of Minnesota, took on a patient suffering from a vicious gut infection of Clostridium difficile. She was crippled by constant diarrhea, which had left her in a wheelchair wearing diapers. Dr. Khoruts treated her with an assortment of antibiotics, but nothing could stop the bacteria. His patient was wasting away, losing 60 pounds over the course of eight months. “She was just dwindling down the drain, and she probably would have died,” Dr. Khoruts said….

Dr. Khoruts mixed a small sample of her husband’s stool with saline solution and delivered it into her colon. Writing in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology last month, Dr. Khoruts and his colleagues reported that her diarrhea vanished in a day. Her Clostridium difficile infection disappeared as well and has not returned since.

The procedure — known as bacteriotherapy or fecal transplantation — had been carried out a few times over the past few decades. But Dr. Khoruts and his colleagues were able to do something previous doctors could not: they took a genetic survey of the bacteria in her intestines before and after the transplant.

Before the transplant, they found, her gut flora was in a desperate state. “The normal bacteria just didn’t exist in her,” said Dr. Khoruts. “She was colonized by all sorts of misfits.”

Two weeks after the transplant, the scientists analyzed the microbes again. Her husband’s microbes had taken over. “That community was able to function and cure her disease in a matter of days,” said Janet Jansson, a microbial ecologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a co-author of the paper. “I didn’t expect it to work. The project blew me away.”

Even more astonishing than the power of the bugs who live in each of us is the ignorance of many doctors to those bugs and their role in our health. I’ve spoken with doctors who had absolutely no clue our bodies contain 1 to 2 quadrillion bacteria, most of which actually benefit us.

Posted by James on Tuesday, July 13, 2010