There are more viruses on our planet than there are stars in the universe. That’s according to a study published in the Nature Reviews Microbiology journal, which estimates that there are 10 nonillion (10 to the 31st power) viruses on earth. That’s hundreds of millions more than the estimated number of stars in all of existence. And here’s the best part: Most of these viruses don’t actually get us sick, and some viruses actually have a positive impact on our health and wellness. Today, let’s talk about the benefits of viruses.
The Benefits of Viruses
“They would much prefer to keep us healthy,” explains evolutionary biologist Suzanne Sadedin in an interview with Forbes. “What benefits the virus is making copies of itself and spreading those copies to new human hosts.”
It’s not surprising that we think that all viruses are inherently bad. Every day, we’re bombarded with marketing ads about cleaning products that promise to “kill 99.99% of viruses,” as if that’s a benefit. Or, we’re warned about the ill effects of viruses in our food or water. Yet only a tiny fraction of viruses pose a risk to our health. Of the trillions upon trillions upon trillions of viruses on earth, approximately 200 make us sick.
And even the ones that could potentially make us sick have surprising benefits to our immune system.
1. Viruses Train Our Immune System
This is known as your acquired immune system.
If you aren’t exposed to viruses as an infant or child, your body may actually struggle to respond appropriately when you’re an adult.
“The acquired immune system, with help from the innate system, produces cells (antibodies) to protect your body from a specific invader,” explains John Hopkins Medicine. “These antibodies are developed by cells called B lymphocytes after the body has been exposed to the invader. The antibodies stay in your child’s body. It can take several days for antibodies to develop. But after the first exposure, the immune system will recognize the invader and defend against it.”
2. Viruses Known as Phages Can Protect Us From Disease
Bacteriophages are viruses that invade the cells of bacteria, infect the bacteria, then kill the bacteria cells. You have millions of phages in your body right now, and many of them are hibernating until they’re exposed to bacteria. And that’s where we may see the fascinating protective benefits of viruses.
“This process could theoretically protect us from some illnesses,” reports Scientific American. “Say you eat food contaminated with Salmonella bacteria. If the bacteria brush along the stomach’s membrane, phages there could ostensibly infect the bacteria and kill them before they can cause disease.” The publication’s researchers say that in this way, the viruses may almost act like a part of your immune system and “protects us against disease.”
3. Some Viruses “Compete” and Win Against More Dangerous Viruses
While it may be an uncomfortable thought, you and your body serve as a delicious buffet for viruses. The viruses need your cells to survive. However, this isn’t an all-you-can-eat buffet. Your body has limited resources, and viruses often compete with each other. In some cases, this may have protective benefits.
“Some epidemiological research shows that respiratory viruses can compete with each other in a way that means one virus can suppress the spread of another,” explains NPR. For example, during the 2009 global flu pandemic, deadly cases of the new strain of flu were suppressed in populations that were already dealing with rhinoviruses (the cause of the common cold).
4. Viruses Can Help Us Adapt to Changing Times
“As we learn more about the roles of viruses in the human virome, we may uncover more therapeutic possibilities,” explains Scientific American. For instance, a researcher at Washington University showed that the virome (the virus population in the body) of rodents changed and adapted to the bacteria communities in the rodents, and that this process may go both ways.
“If the viral communities change first, they can sculpt the bacterial communities to serve them,” notes the publication. “If the bacterial communities change first, the viral communities are likely just adapting so they can infiltrate the reshaped bacteria. Researchers have shown that viromes can change significantly in periodontal disease and in inflammatory bowel diseases.”
This exciting news means we should reshape how we view viruses, and we should embrace all the complex ways that our body’s different systems, viruses, bacteria, and cells interact. It also highlights the importance of caring for our body using natural methods that support our natural immune response instead of indiscriminately wiping out bacteria and viruses to prevent illness and when we’re sick.
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