Posts Tagged ‘Helpful bacteria’

             When I feel stressed out and in need of a tranquilizer, I go out to my greenhouse and re-pot some plants. Dirt therapy. Afterwards, I feel better. We have known for a long time that contact with nature makes us feel better, whether it’s yard or garden work, walking or working in the woods, or even hunting and fishing. We used to think the effects were purely psychological, “all in your head”, but now scientists have learned that it’s also in your blood stream, nervous system, and who knows where else. Don’t you love it when scientists find evidence for things that we have known all along?

            Warning: this will be more serious than some of my postings and you will encounter some big words. Don’t let that phase you. The words are not as important as the ideas behind them. Let’s get one big word out of the way: Mycobacterium vaccae. If you want to pronounce it, try Mike-o-bac-ter-ium va-kay. Scientists abbreviate it as M. vaccae. Let’s just call it Mv.

            I first heard about this last spring at the Garden Club convention in Jacksonville. One of the speakers, a scientist, said that certain soil bacteria interact with chemicals in your skin, and this boosts your immune system and improves your mood. What a fascinating idea! Did I hear him right? I decided to find out more. It seems that there is a harmless soil bacterium, Mv, which does indeed have this effect on us. Scientists first found Mv in cow dung (vacca is Latin for cow) and started exploring its possible uses in medicine. About a decade or so ago, a London oncologist, Mary O’Brien, injected her cancer patients with Mv. (What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.) Her patients’ symptoms improved. Not only did their pain and nausea decrease, but they felt better emotionally, had more energy, and could think more clearly.

            Since then, researchers have injected mice with Mv and found that it stimulates the growth of certain brain cells and lowers anxiety. They fed it to mice and the mice could find their way through a maze twice as fast, swim twice as long, and had less anxiety. After they stopped feeding it to the mice, the effects lasted about three weeks. No wonder I feel better with dirt under my fingernails, but it seems that we need to be exposed to Mv on a continuous basis to benefit from it.

            Doctors are still doing research with Mv on people with a variety of illnesses including asthma, depression, rheumatoid arthritis, and several skin conditions. In humans, the bacteria activate immune cells which release chemicals which affect the nerves. They have found, as in mice, Mv stimulates the growth of nerve cells that increase serotonin and nor epinephrine, and these chemicals improve mood and cognitive functioning. This is the same way that Prozac works.

            So, with dirt under my nails, not only do I feel better, I can think more clearly, too. But how does Mv get into my body? I do not eat dirt by choice and I certainly don’t inject it. Scientists aren’t really certain. They think the bacteria get into the air and we inhale it, or some gets into our food and we eat it, or it may enter through cuts in our skin. I haven’t found anything that verifies that it can interact with unbroken skin, but I may not have looked hard enough.

            All this applies to children also, so if you want them to learn better and do better on those standardized tests, instead of making them spend all day with their noses in books, let them play outside and get dirty. Scientists believe that the rise in asthma and allergies is due to our living “too clean”. Children growing up on traditional farms have fewer of these problems than do other children. They are exposed to harmless micro-organisms that train their immune systems to ignore pollen and other common allergens. Remember, Mv was first found in cow manure.

            So, what does all this really mean? It means that our relationship to our world is much more complex than we realize. We really are one with Nature. We need more than air, water, and food. On the physical level, our bodies interact with lowly things in the natural world just as our minds and hearts interact with its beauty. We have known that our intestines are home to bacteria and such that aid digestion. Now we find out that another bacterium makes us healthier, happier, and smarter. What other beneficial things are out there to be discovered?

            When we humans venture out into space, we need to be cognizant of these unseen things our bodies need. And when we travel to other worlds, we will need to bring some of our home with us to keep us healthy and happy. By the same token, we must be cautious of microorganisms we find there. The implications of all this are astronomical in extent.

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Bonnie T. Ogle

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