Good Germs, Bad Germs Health and Survival in a Bacterial World

Jessica Snyder Sachs

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

304 Pages



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Public sanitation and antibiotic drugs have brought about historic increases in the human life span; they have also unintentionally produced new health crises by disrupting the age-old balance between humans and the microorganisms that inhabit our bodies and our environment. As a result, antibiotic resistance now ranks among the gravest medical problems of modern times.  Good Germs, Bad Germs addresses not only this issue but also what has become known as the “hygiene hypothesis”—an argument that links the over-sanitation of modern life to now-epidemic increases in immune and other disorders. Jessica Snyder Sachs explores our emerging understanding of the symbiotic relationship between the human body and its resident microbes. She also looks into a future in which antibiotics will be designed and used more wisely, and beyond that, to a day when we may replace antibacterial drugs and cleansers with bacterial ones—each custom-designed for maximum health benefits.


Praise for Good Germs, Bad Germs

"Snyder Sach's capable overview could hardly be more timely."—Abigail Zuger, M.D., The New York Times

"Snyder Sachs brings the battle against dirt firmly into the twenty-first century, when our worries focus less on unsightly (and malodorous) dirt than on invisible, microscopic foes."—Frances Stead Sellers, The Washington Post

"Snyder Sachs explains how our obsession with cleanliness led us to this point and details how science may still find a way past the danger."—O, The Oprah Magazine

"All germs are bad. Or are they? In Good Germs, Bad Germs: Health and Survival in a Bacterial World, Jessica Snyder Sachs, a freelance science writer, explores the symbiotic relationship that we, as humans, have with germs, and what has recently gone terribly wrong with this relationship. With the ever increasing rise in food allergies, asthma, antibiotic resistance bacterial infections, and chronic, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases such as lupus, Chrohn's disease, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis. In the course of this engaging and somewhat scary study, Sachs chronicles the search for antibiotics and examines why they worked so well when they were first discovered—and why they no longer do so. She also devotes a significant portion of this book to the exploration of the 'Hygiene Hypothesis.' This is a theory that many of today's ills, including food allergies and increases in inflammatory diseases are a direct result of good sanitation and hygiene practices. Because of these, we, as humans, are no longer exposed to many of the germs that previous generations were. Therefore, the body is unable to build up a resistance to them, so when they do attack, the attack can be devastating. As well, our increased reliance on antibiotics has not only succeeded in killing the bad microorganisms, but also the good ones that we need to maintain our overall health. From beginning to end Good Germs, Bad Germs is a fascinating history of man's apparently ill-conceived battle against our bacterial foes. This book also marvelously illustrates just how interrelated man is with the world around, and within us. This is not however, just a history of what has come before. Sachs also looks toward the future and the steps we can take now to put our relationship with germs back into balance. She examines the future of antibiotics and new drugs and technologies that might be used to replace them and methodologies that will selectively target the bad germs, while leaving the good germs unharmed. She also investigates the practical applications of probiotics and their use in treating just about everything from chronic infections to inflammatory disease. Good Germs, Bad Germs is an eye-opening and timely book that presents an authoritative overview of the 'hygiene hypothesis' as well as man's development, use, and over use of antibiotics. This book is written in a narrative style that is aimed toward a general audience. Sachs explains all scientific and technical aspects referred to in a clear and easily understandable manner without talking down to the reader. As well, for those wishing to delve deeper into this intriguing subject, you'll find Sachs' endnotes a valuable source of information."—Auggie Moore, History in Review

"Sachs' fine book . . . begins with a real-life prologue about a college student who is well one day, and the next day rapidly goes into septic shock and dies. Throughout her narrative, Sachs interjects stories such as this, and herein lies much of the book's hold on the reader . . . In the chapter 'Life on Man,' Sachs provides a fascinating description of the bacterial colonization of the human landscape. Just 24 hours after birth, our skin sports one thousand bacteria per square centimeter. At 48 hours, the number jumps to ten thousand. We hit the hundred thousand mark by six weeks. It is this dense forest of one hundred billion friendly bacteria on our skin that guards us from the rare, unfriendly sorts. Fifteen trillion essential bacteria line and protect our empty digestive tracts. We learn that the type and count of bacteria are affected by emotional states and, even more intriguing, that the bacteria can, and do, signal our cells to enhance these symbiotic relationships. One of the book's strong points is its blend of the highly technical with the everyday. There is enough of the nonscientific to keep all but the most unrepentant technophobes slogging along. Hang on through some subjects that just cannot be made any simpler, and you will be rewarded with stories that no one taught us in med school . . . Good Germs, Bad Germs and books like it have something to teach a society dizzy with the hubris of science."—Matthew Sleeth, Books & Culture

"Jessica Snyder Sachs successfully weaves story–telling, history, microbiology and evolution into an exciting account of the two aspects of microbes for humankind—the good and the bad. Through direct interviews and other primary sources, she provides the reader with up-to-date reporting in the areas of drug resistance, infection and new therapeutics."—Stuart B. Levy, M.D., author of The Antibiotic Paradox: How the Misuse of Antibiotics Destroys their Curative Powers

"Jessica Snyder Sachs has a vital message about our future health: we have to get to know our microbes better. They are not simple germs to be wiped out with a magic drug, but complicated creatures whose existence is intimately intertwined with our own. In Good Germs, Bad Germs, Sachs delivers one of the best accounts of the cutting edge of microbiology I've read in recent years."—Carl Zimmer, author of Parasite Rex and Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea

"If germs had hands you'd want to shake them—at least to thank them for the good work they do. That counterintuitive truth is just one of many in Jessica Snyder Sachs’s Good Germs, Bad Germs, an alternately illuminating, fascinating and even amusing look into the curious world of microbes and how our very struggle to keep ourselves safe from them has put us in danger we never imagined. Sachs displays a rare gift for shining light into places you thought you’d never want to explore and then making you glad you had the courage to peek."—Jeffrey Kluger, Science Editor, Time, and author of  Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio

"Good Germs, Bad Germs is incredibly well researched and contains a wealth of fascinating information.  It is completely up to date, integrating science and health with the newest ideas on how microbes beneficially affect and even protect humans from disease."—Dale Umetsu, Professor of Immunology, Harvard Medical School

"Jessica Snyder Sachs’s Good Germs, Bad Germs is an outstanding introduction to a complex scientific topic, presented in extremely clear and vivid language. Her approach outlines not only the deleterious effects of microbes, with which we are all too familiar, but also the beneficial side to this vast array of organisms, without which human life would be impossible. The book is a must-read for anyone who wants to get 'the big picture' of the microbial world."—Garland E. Allen, Professor of Biology, Washington University

"The amazing thing about this book is that it unites in a remarkable way the particular—otherwise known as everyday life—with the sweepingly general—the historical perspective.  It is educational, amusing, thought–provoking, and quirky by turns. It brings to life not only the individual scientists who shaped the modern era of microbiology but also the equally important lives of modern parents with critically ill children." —Abigail Salyers, Professor of Microbiology, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and co-author of Revenge Of The Microbes: How Bacterial Resistance Is Undermining The Antibiotic Miracle

"The human body, science writer Sachs makes clear, hosts a teeming ecosystem of microorganisms, which, like a terrestrial ecosystem, owes its survival to the balanced interrelationships of its inhabitants. The ecosystem of Homo sapiens has evolved over millennia to optimize our species' healthy development. Sachs reports, however, that scientists increasingly suspect that 19th-century advances in sanitation and the 20th-century advent of antibiotics have inadvertently disrupted these ancient symbioses. Increasingly, allergies, autoimmune diseases, and widespread drug-resistant bacteria are the unintended consequences of the modern world's dramatic medical progress. Fortunately, Sachs softens her bad news with stories of promising research, including new vaccines that may prevent diseases requiring antibiotic treatment, 'probiotic' cultures that restore internal microflora balance, and, more controversially, genetic manipulation of bacteria to improve the virus-fighting qualities of friendly bacteria or to hinder the reproduction of those causing disease. The paradigm shift of working with instead of against bacteria has the potential to revolutionize 21st-century medicine; Sachs's book is a . . . guide to this emerging field."—Kathy Arsenault, Library Journal

"Science writer Sachs makes a strong case for a new paradigm for dealing with the microbial life that teems around and within us. Taking both evolutionary and ecological approaches, she explains why antibiotics work so well but are now losing their effectiveness. She notes that between agricultural antibiotic usage and needless prescriptions written for human use, antibiotic resistance has reached terrifying levels. A decade ago, resistant infections acquired in hospitals were killing an estimated eighty-eight thousand Americans each year . . . more than car accidents and homicides combined. Our attempts to destroy microorganisms regularly upset useful microbial communities, often leading to serious medical consequences. Sachs also presents evidence suggesting that an epidemic-like rise in autoimmune diseases and allergies may be attributable to our misguided frontal assault on the bacterial world. The solution proposed is to encourage the growth of healthy, displacement-resistant microbial ecological communities and promote research that disrupts microbial processes rather than simply attempting to kill the germs themselves. Despite the frightening death toll, Sachs's summary of promising new avenues of research offers hope."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Jessica Snyder Sachs is a freelance science writer. Her first book, Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death, was published in 2001. She lives in New Jersey.
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  • Jessica Snyder Sachs

  • Jessica Snyder Sachs is a freelance science writer. Her first book, Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death, was published in 2001. She lives in New Jersey.
  • Jessica Snyder Sachs Ernst Hartmut Laemmert
    Jessica Snyder Sachs