While we're used to thinking of bacteria solely as agents of devastating diseases, their beneficial capacities are just as remarkable.
Research over the last 10 years has revealed a great deal about the nature of bacterial flora — the microorganisms that live in our digestive system — and the vital role they play in our health. Because the immune system is largely housed in the intestines, it makes sense that the 100 trillion (100,000,000,000,000!) bacteria in your gut help to determine the body's ability to fight infection and prevent disease.
Here are some of their other key health benefits:
• Bacteria can improve nutrient absorption.
Lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacteria have been shown to improve the body's ability to absorb calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, and other vitamins and minerals.
• Bacteria can ward off infection.
In 1988, a U.S. surgeon general report announced that "normal microbial flora provide a passive mechanism to prevent infection" and since then, a number of studies have strengthened that finding. In 2008, an NIH study confirmed that "good bacteria" housed in the gut can help defend the body against infection. And in 2012, scientists at Arizona State University found that certain strains of bacteria can be beneficial in preventing food-borne infection.
• Bacteria produce vitamins.
Not only do bacteria improve nutrient absorption, they also produce vitamins! Bifidobacteria and lactic acid bacteria (LAB) produce B-complex vitamins, including biotin, thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), and cobalamin (B12), as well as folic acid and vitamin K.