September 7, 2011

Probiotic story: Because You’re Really Only 10% You!

So many times over the years I’ve been inspired to sing praises about good bacteria to friends, family members, acquaintances, and even random strangers (for who wouldn’t leap at the chance to discuss gut flora on a long bus ride through Illinois?!).

It’s time for me to break out a bullhorn apparently because this subject still falls under the popular radar and has a lot to do with health.

Case in point, my colleague, who works with me at a science journals company, was prescribed antibiotics and I asked her if she knew why it might be good to eat yogurt or take a supplement. She had no idea. When I told her, she said “well, maybe doctors don’t discuss it because it’s not proven.”

But it has, and has been for a looong time!

Back in 2004, I was working as a student science writer and followed a lead to write about a woman’s work with a squid and some bacteria that ate part of the animal to help it mature. Interesting enough.

When I walked into the researcher’s office, I had no idea she would turn my opinion of my physical self upside down.

I remember how she looked at me, grinning with sparkling eyes, as she leaned back in her chair and said “after all, of all the cells in that make up your body, each is outnumbered at least ten to one by bacteria—more than tissue, you are a walking collection of bacterial colonies.”

Mouth agape, I tried not to be a gushing reporter and carried on. But the walk back to my room was blurred by my fixation on the fact that I am not even really, physically, me!

She also said that over the past decades, since major study of bacterial illness and antibiotics started, scientists have only focused on bad bacteria and their obliteration. But the chemical compounds used to kill them, as lifesaving as they have been, are still in crude stages like atomic bombs wiping out broad swatches of living beings—innocent and ill-willed alike.

There are way more good bacteria around and this researcher is part of a growing number who are trying to make antibiotics more targeted to avoid killing them.

Most good bacteria reside along the entire length of our digestive tract—from mouth all the way south. These little guys—whose scientific names end often end in ilus, like acidophilus, bifidus, etc.—help digest food, and manufacture vitamins and countless other substances. Many also reside on our skin, to help us in ways that we are only just now discovering.

It’s to a point now, according to a recent Scientific American article, that we don’t even know what beneficial bacterial strains we’ve lost … and some, scientists say, might be lost for good.

Anyway, I didn’t write this to make you feel helpless, it’s just that you probably didn’t know that you have a lot of little armies of life depending on you … to make your life better!

Here are a few ways to show them you care:

When you are taking antibiotics or antimalarial drugs for that trip to tropical country x, look into probiotic supplements, yogurts and other ways to replenish your colonies.

Take it easy on the hand sanitizer and antibacterial soaps—in hospitals, after public transport, when you get home from a grimy day in the city, when someone around you is sick, sure … but every five minutes might be a bit much.

Look around at your house-cleaning products, are they full of bleaches and antibacterials? If so, use gloves. I tend to use Dr. Bronner’s multipurpose cleaner and other natural products. My house is clean and I’m sick just as infrequently as other folks.

Women (and men although this problem, while it exists, isn’t as obvious in them) may do well to understand that yeast infections are based on an imbalance of good bacteria and yeast—they live in harmony but when you eat too much sugar, the yeast overgrows. That’s why probiotic dosing and cutting down on sugar will help a lot more than products that just treat the surface symptoms.

All kinds of probiotic products—Activia, designer Activia products with fine marketing print, probiotic drinks, kephir, gelcaps, etc.—line the shelves of coops and health food stores.

From person to person, researchers are finding that the bacterial makeup is different. So it’s kind of complicated but in essence simple: be awake to this, stay informed (Starting point: Google probiotics) as much as you can and maybe think of incorporating yogurt/kephir or non-dairy kombucha/cultured drinks into your life, literally!

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Emily Alp  |  Contribution: 2,930