When most people hear the word bacteria, they think of disease. But even though it’s true that many kinds of bacteria do causes diseases, other kinds are actually very important to human health. Millions of friendly bacteria live on your skin and inside your body, and they help you in many different ways. In fact, your digestive system and your immune system both rely on assistance from bacteria to do their jobs.
But these friendly bacteria may be under threat. Genetic engineering is bringing about huge changes in the global food system. More and more, farmers around the world are growing designer crops engineered to produce more food, resist disease and pests, and grow in a wider range of climates. These new foods can be very helpful to people, but scientists can’t be certain that they’re completely safe. Some new evidence suggests that genetically modified foods can be harmful to the friendly bacteria living in your gut. The risk seems to be especially great when genetically engineered foods are grown with a common kind of weed-killer called RoundUp.
Friendly bacteria in your stomach are keeping you healthy, but are you keeping them healthy? #HealthStatus
- 1Scientists are discovering that helpful bacteria are essential for human health, including for digestion, the immune system, and even mental health.
- 2But genetically modified foods, and the pesticides and herbicides used to grow them, may be damaging to these bacteria. One herbicide, RoundUp, could pose serious health risks.
- 3Lots more research needs to be done on the effects of GM foods and RoundUp, but for now, people should try to reduce their exposure by sticking to natural, organic foods.
Why are gut bacteria so important?
It’s a little unsettling to think about billions of tiny creatures living inside your body, but according to scientists these critters are actually essential for human health. They call these bacteria and other microscopic organisms the microbiome, and new research shows that the microbiome helps keep people healthy in several different ways. Bacteria living in the stomach and intestines appear to play a special role in at least three important processes.
First, bacteria in the stomach and intestines are part of the digestive process. In health class, you probably learned about the importance of macronutrients—fats, proteins and carbohydrates. You might also have learned about micronutrients like vitamin A, vitamin C, and many others. The foods we eat contain varying amounts of all sorts of micronutrients and macronutrients, but our digestive system isn’t always good at accessing them. In fact, many micronutrients like zinc can only be digested with the help of bacteria. If you didn’t have any bacteria living inside you, you wouldn’t be alive for long.
Second, bacteria work hand in hand with your immune system to fight off diseases. The many healthy species that make up the microbiome actually fight off other, more harmful kinds of bacteria. A good example is salmonella, a very dangerous bacteria that can cause severe infections and even kill you. You can catch salmonella by eating meat that hasn’t been properly cooked, but most people who are exposed to the pathogen never get sick because their friendly bacteria fight off the bad guys.
Last, but not least, friendly bacteria seem to be very important for mental health. Scientists have known for decades that people who take antibiotics can become depressed, but no one was quite sure why. Recent experiments have found that one reason is that antibiotics can kill off helpful bacteria species. In a recent experiment, scientists at Stanford University even found that mice with poor microbiomes are less intelligent than normal mice and have less will to live when exposed to danger.
As more and more research pours in, scientists are becoming convinced that friendly bacteria are essential for healthy lives. But lots more research needs to be done. Scientists are only beginning to understand the important role that bacteria play in processes like digestion, immune responses, and mental health. Unfortunately, changes in the way people get their food may be threatening the microbiome in ways that people simply can’t predict.
GM Foods May Be Destroying Vital Bacteria
Genetically modified foods have become incredibly common around the world. In some ways, this is a good thing. Genetic modification can make food more nutritious. For example, one of the first GMOs was a new kind of rice designed to produce vitamin A. It may have saved millions of people from becoming blind due to vitamin A deficiency. Other GMOs are more resistant to droughts or severe weather, helping to prevent famines. The problem with these engineered foods is that scientists don’t completely understand them, and they haven’t had time to study them properly. Unfortunately, some evidence suggests that modified foods may we extremely harmful to your digestive bacteria.
The first problem is that many engineered crops are designed specifically to kill bacteria. Crops like wheat and corn can get sick just like people, and the bacteria that make them sick can spread from field to field like wildfire. As a result, a disease outbreak in one farmer’s field can end up devastating entire communities and potentially even lead to mass starvation. Genetic engineering lets crop scientists design new variations that are resistant to common bacteria.
That seems like a great idea, but what happens when people eat foods that designed to kill bacteria? Nobody knows for sure. Some people argue that that eating GM crops could cause helpful bacteria in the stomach and intestines to die off. Others say the problem is the problem is that these kinds of foods don’t have helpful bacteria living on them, so the diversity of your stomach bacteria never gets replenished. It’s very difficult for scientists to study this topic.
A second problem is that GMO foods might have different nutritional values from non-engineered foods, and these differences might be harmful to some kinds of helpful bacteria. There’s a lot about nutrition that scientists still don’t fully understand. For example, many foods contain chemicals called amino acids—an essential ingredient for life. But there are so many varieties of amino acids that nobody knows what each kind actually does. It might be that tweaking corn or soy plants to kill bacteria ends up destroying their ability to produce an important amino acid, and that might cause important bacteria species to starve.
If genetically engineered foods cause either of these problems, or both of them, it could lead to serious health consequences in people. Since much of this subject area is still a mystery to science, it’s impossible to know for certain whether such foods pose a real threat. However, the best available science suggests there may be big problems lurking in the food supply.
Is Glyphosate Destroying Gut Bacteria?
Even if genetically modified foods are safe by themselves, they often come with an unwanted companion: pesticides. The most popular genetically engineered crops grown all over the world were designed to be resistant to a special herbicide called RoundUp. RoundUp, which is produced by the Monsanto company, has an active ingredient called Glyphosate. This chemical, coupled with GM crops, is very useful to farmers because they can spray it all over their fields. The chemical kills weeds, but leaves the resistant crops untouched.
But there’s an obvious problem: RoundUp is poisonous! It takes a very large dose—much larger than you could get by just eating sprayed foods—to directly harm humans, but new evidence suggests that even tiny amounts of the herbicide might be harmful to your friendly bacteria. Some scientists say that leftover herbicide and pesticide on leafy green plants or fruits like apples and pears can end up in the stomach and intestines. There, it makes it harder for bacteria cells to multiply. Since individual bacteria cells don’t live very long, this can end up wiping out entire species.
Another possible problem with RoundUp is that it kills lots of species of plants and insects that live in and near farmers’ fields. That’s good news for the farmer, as these species compete with their crops. But killing those other species also means that the foods people eat have fewer kinds of bacteria living on and in them. For example, if all the dragonflies in an area die out because of RoundUp, than any bacteria that live on dragonflies won’t be spread to the crops. If those bacteria are helpful to humans’ microbiomes, then the changes cause by herbicides could be harmful.
Again, it’s very difficult to scientists to study the effects of herbicides because the chemicals are so widespread. Nevertheless, some scientists have argued that RoundUp might the cause of Celiac disease. They say that RoundUp is killing bacteria that help people digest gluten, and that is leading to a huge increase in the number of people around the world who suffer from the disease. It’s that, over the next few decades, scientists will discover more and more diseases that could be connected to RoundUp.
Tips for Protecting Yourself
Genetically modified foods and herbicides are so common these days that it’s basically impossible for anyone to avoid them completely. But, there are a few steps you can take to protect yourself from the possible harmful effects of these products. None of these steps are foolproof, but they can reduce your risk.
First, either peel or wash any fresh produce thoroughly. For round fruits and vegetables like apples and tomatoes, a few seconds under a faucet is enough to rinse away any trace of chemicals. Fruits with thick peels that you don’t eat, like oranges, don’t even need to be washed. Leafy greens are a little trickier because poisonous particles can get hidden away in the crevices. For these vegetables, wash each leaf for at least 15 to 20 seconds. This rule goes for organic produce grown without any herbicides or pesticides, too. An organic farmer doesn’t use herbicides on his or her crops, but has no say on what the next door neighbors do.
Second, buy organic fruits and vegetables whenever possible. Organic produce is grown without the use of any harmful chemicals, so choosing organics will protect your friendly bacteria. Additionally, organic farms are likely to have more diverse species living in and around them, so you’ll be able to introduce new helpful species to your microbiome.
Third, choose GMO-free foods whenever possible. “Organic” doesn’t always mean “GMO-free,” so this requires some careful reading of labels. As a general rule, if a food doesn’t explicitly market itself as non-GMO or GMO-free, it probably contains at least some genetically modified ingredients. It’s almost impossible to completely avoid GMO foods, try not to worry if you have to eat some. The important thing is to reduce your exposure when you can.
Finally, avoid packaged and processed foods. This is a good general health tip because packaged foods are usually high in sugar and low in important micronutrients. But avoiding packaged foods is also a good way to avoid GMOs and RoundUp. You can’t be sure how well the granola bar factory washes the corn and wheat it uses in its products, so it’s possible you’re getting a small dose of pesticides and herbicides every time you take a bite. Also, these packaged foods are very likely to be made with one or more genetically modified crops. There’s no way to know, so the best practice is to avoid them completely.
The microbiome is complicated, and scientists still don’t understand exactly how it happens. The only thing that’s certain is that helpful bacteria play an important role in human health. Genetically modified foods, especially those that have been grown with the help of chemicals like RoundUp, pose a serious threat to the microbiome. It’s impossible to know what consequences these types of products might lead to, but the safest course of action is avoid potentially harmful foods whenever you can.
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