Did You Know That Viruses Are Saving Your Life Right Now?

Story at-a-glance

New research reveals that a group of viruses called bacteriophages (phages) actually help you stay healthy by destroying harmful bacteria and encouraging beneficial bacteria to flourish in and on your body

Scientists found that these mucus-dwelling phages have symbiotic relationships with their host (you), and help control the delicate microbial balance in your body, giving you “smart mucus”

Similar symbiotic relationships have been detected in the mucus of other animals, including fish and the slime layer around sea coral

Phages sometimes insert their genetic material into a bacterium’s genome rather than killing it outright, a process that can actually protect the bacterium against other phages

This new information has exciting therapeutic implications for illnesses such as Crohn’s disease, IBD, ulcerative colitis, acne, and antibiotic-resistant infections like MRSA and deadly CRE

You’ve lived in an invisible sea of microbes from the moment you were born, breathing them, swallowing them, and harboring them on your skin. More than 90 percent of the DNA in your body is not yours, but actually belongs to these microbes.

In order for you to stay healthy, your body must remain in a perpetual state of battle-readiness so it can control the pathogenic organisms that make you sick, while supporting and protecting the beneficial ones that keep you healthy.

In order for this delicate dance to occur, your body must learn the difference between helpful and harmful microorganisms. But how does it accomplish this?

A brand new study from San Diego State University sheds new light on this amazing process. The secret lies in one of your most underappreciated body fluids: mucus.

This slimy substance coating the inside of your mouth, nose, eyelids, digestive tract, lungs and other organs may turn out to play one of the most important roles in your immune system. You produce about a quart of mucus each day from your nose, throat and sinus, most of which you swallow.1

Mucus used to be regarded as merely a physical barrier to prevent invading organisms from entering your body, as well as functioning as a lubricant. But recent scientific findings suggest it plays a far more active and critical role.

For some time, researchers have known that mucus is loaded with viruses. Not a pleasant thought, if you assume these viruses are pathogenic invaders that your body had trapped and marked for kill.

But this new study found many of these viruses to actually serve as immune helpers—not enemies—and an important part of your body’s defense system.2 The study’s findings appear in the May 20, 2013 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.3

Partners in Slime

Scientists have found a type of virus called a bacteriophage,4 or simply “phage,” present in great numbers in virtually all mucus samples.

Wherever bacteria reside, you will also find phages, because phages depend on bacteria for their survival. In the above referenced study, lead author and microbiologist Jeremy Barr and colleagues noticed there were MANY more phages in mucus than in mucus-free zones, just millimeters away.

For example, in the saliva surrounding human gums, they found about five phages to every one bacterium. But on the mucosal surface of the gum itself, the ratio was closer to 40 to one. This spurred the question, “What are these phages doing? Could they be protecting the host?”

Phages specialize in breaking open and killing certain kinds of bacteria, hijacking them in order to replicate. Most phages have hollow heads, which store their DNA and RNA, and tunnel tails designed for binding to the surface of their bacterial targets. According to phages.org, once a phage has attached itself to a bacterium:

“The viral DNA is then injected through the tail into the host cell, where it directs the production of progeny phages, often over a hundred in half an hour. These ‘young’ phages burst from the host cell (killing it) and infect more bacteria.”

The researchers found evidence that these phages partner with animals and humans to stave off bacterial infections and control the composition of friendly microbes in your body. Like it or not, you and these snot-dwelling viruses have a symbiotic relationship with one another!

One of the scientists, Forest Rohwer, is actually an expert on sea coral, making him an important asset to this study. Why? What does sea coral have to do with mucus?

Sea Coral Makes Snot Too!

As it turns out, mucus can be found throughout the animal kingdom, from fish to worms to sea coral. Coral actually spends a great deal of energy producing and maintaining a prodigious layer of surface slime—yes, essentially mucus—which until recently has been poorly understood. And wherever you find slime, you also find dense populations of phages. Phages are studded with molecules that grab onto the complex sugar molecules in the slime, like a sticky bottlebrush, anchoring them where they have access to a rich, diverse bacterial population. Recent studies suggest certain bacteria turn surface slime into a germ-fighting medicine for corals. The coral’s layer of mucus serves as a probiotics system. According to Science News:5

“Corals appear to craft their slimy coatings at least in part to encourage visits by particular families of microbial guests. Ecologists have even begun referring to the welcomed hordes of bacteria, viruses, and more that shelter in the mucus films as integral elements of the coral system… Like the bacteria that occupy the human gut, the flora that colonizes surface slime can offer health benefits to reef builders. Conversely, an absence of these microbes, caused by stress or environmental change, could leave corals vulnerable to disease.”

Smart Phones, Smart Cars, and Now, Smart Mucus

It’s possible that humans and other animals have evolved ways of selecting specific phages to control specific types of bacteria, which opens the door to a variety of studies about the symbiosis between phages and their animal hosts. Barr notes that phages sometimes insert their genetic material into a bacterium’s genome rather than killing it outright—a process that can actually protect the bacterium against other phages.

Barr speculates that in this way, mucus-borne phages might protect bacteria that benefit their animal hosts, while destroying those that cause harm. Your mucus has developed an intelligence of its own. Gut bacteria (E. faecalis) have also been observed creating phages to use as weapons against closely related bacteria that might consume shared resources. Researchers have called this a form of “bacterial warfare.”6

These newly recognized symbiotic relationships have exciting implications for treating disease—for example, conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. IBD sufferers have severely disrupted gut biota with different dominant species than healthy people, and those with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis suffer from a breakdown in the mucosal lining of their gut, suggesting this phage-based defense system may have failed.7

Therapeutic Applications for Bacteriophages

Bacteriophages have been used to treat a variety of bacterial infections and are considered safe, although many more clinical trials will be needed for them to be utilized therapeutically in the West. The main barrier to phage therapy in the US is the lack of published research, and the lack of interest by pharmaceutical companies who cannot profit from phages in the way they can profit from antibiotics. But in other parts of the world, phages have been successfully used in a variety of applications, especially in Russia.

The first reported use of phages for combating infectious disease came from France in 1921. In the 1930s, Stalin brought phage therapy to the Soviet Union to help Communist troops ward off dysentery.

Phages have been used to cure plant diseases. And in the war between humans and bacteria (mostly in the Soviet Union), they’ve been used successfully against diphtheria, tetanus, gangrene, scarlet fever, meningococcus, Salmonella and Shigella. Hospitals in the Republic of Georgia are spraying operating rooms with phages before surgeries to reduce the risk of infection, dousing both the air and surgical instruments.8

Phages are an excellent way to combat antibacterial resistance because they adapt to morphing bacteria, whereas antibiotics don’t. Phage therapy has been used successfully to treat acne,9 and even MRSA.10, 11 If phages can be controlled, they may become the ultimate antibacterial weapons against the latest deadly superbugs, such as CRE.12, 13 The Journal of Infection reported impressive success rates with phage therapy in humans, in the range of 80 to 95 percent.14 The good news is, you already have this wonderful army living in your body, right where nature put it—it’s built-in!

What’s Snot to Love?

Hopefully this intriguing information has renewed your appreciation for your mucus… as funny as that sounds. Our modern culture tends to be overly concerned with cleanliness, especially for children, and snot has gotten a bad rap. It’s likely that germophobia has done us more harm than good. Children love snot, and in light of what science is now saying, we should follow their lead.

A child raised in a “sterile” environment, devoid of dirt and germs and given antibiotics that kill off all of the bacteria in his gut, is not able to build up natural resistance to disease, making him vulnerable to illnesses later in life. This theory, known as the hygiene hypothesis, is likely one major reason why many allergies and immune-system diseases have doubled, tripled or even quadrupled in the last few decades.

The hygiene hypothesis becomes even more significant in light of his new information about the symbiotic relationship between you and your mucosal inhabitants. By depriving children of germ exposure, this symbiosis really cannot happen as nature intended. Without regular microbial exposure, your child’s body isn’t given the opportunity to properly build its defenses. Perhaps this is why we have so much chronic inflammation, autoimmune disease, rampant allergies, depression and heart disease today, as these have all been associated with the hygiene hypothesis.

Phages aside, one of the most important aspects of overall health is balancing your gut microflora. For more information about how important your gut flora is to your overall health, please listen to the following interview with Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, who developed the GAPS Protocol.

Download Interview Transcript

How to Avoid Being Overly Hygienic

If the hygiene hypothesis holds up (and there’s mounting evidence that it will), trying to keep your environment overly sterile could backfire big time and actually increase your risk of developing acute and chronic illnesses. Appropriate exposure to a variety of microorganisms from day one is key to developing a strong immune system. Your mucus provides the substrate for a complex symbiotic relationship between viruses, bacteria, and probably other players that have yet to be discovered. Once again, Mother Nature has proven much wiser than we humans! You can avoid being “too clean” and bolster your body’s natural defenses by:

  1. Educating yourself on the differences between natural and artificial immunity, and making informed decisions about the use of vaccinations
  2. Avoiding unnecessary antibiotics. Remember that viral infections are impervious to antibiotics, which only work on bacterial infections.
  3. Letting your child get dirty. Allow your kids to play outside in the dirt (and realize that if your kid eats boogers, the world won’t end).
  4. Avoiding the use of antibacterial soaps and other antibacterial household products, which wipe out the microorganisms your body needs exposure to in order for proper immune function. Simple soap and water are all you need for effective hand washing. Antibacterial chemicals (typically triclosan) are quite toxic and have even been found to promote the growth of resistant bacteria and superbugs.
  5. Consuming organic, optimally locally grown meats that do not contain antibiotics.

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