Science tells us we are all more microbe than human, and each of us has a unique collection of bacterial cells inside our bodies called a microbiome. Those bacterial cells outnumber our human cells by about ten to one, but one study found that Americans actually have fewer types of bacteria than people in less developed countries. Why the contrast?
Data published in the journal Cell Reports points to modern sanitation and drinking water treatment as likely reasons for our lack of bacterial diversity. To come to their conclusion, researchers from the University of Alberta compared the gut bacteria of people living in the United States to those living in rural Papua New Guinea—a close-knit, agricultural population far removed from western civilization. After analyzing the results, it was determined that Americans have about 50 fewer types of gut bacteria when compared with the remote tribe.
Similar results were found by researchers from the University of Oklahoma, who studied one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer tribes in the world. The Matsés reside in the Peruvian Amazon and are far removed from the modern world. As a result, their gut bacteria populations include many species missing from the guts of people living in industrialized countries like the United States.
Why does it matter?
Having fewer bacteria in your digestive system may not sound like a bad thing, but when it comes to gut bacteria scientists are beginning to realize a very important fact: the more diverse, the better. This has been confirmed by researchers at Duke University, among others.
In a controlled environment, scientists introduced a large number of bacteria and worms into the digestive systems of laboratory rats, thinking it would have a negative impact on their health. However, they were surprised when just the opposite happened: simply increasing the diversity of the gut bacteria had a positive impact on the rats’ immune response and overall well-being.