Thursday, January 3, 2013

Probiotics--a New Fad?

     Probiotics are the new fad.  Should you take them?  Will they "boost your immune system" (whatever that means)?  Will they help you live longer?  Do we all have to eat yogurt every day for the rest of our lives to be really healthy?  Is yogurt a good source of probiotics, or is that a bunch of hype? Can you take a pill instead of eating yogurt?
     "Pro"-biotics are the opposite of  "anti"-biotics:  they "pro"-mote bacterial colonization in the body.  The bacteria they promote are supposed to be "good" bacteria.   Human beings are not individuals, but conglomerates.  We carry around with us trillions of consensual organisms, like barnacles, each with its own life cycle and pattern of expression.  Mostly, we're unaware of these critters, who crawl like parasites (without the life-draining qualities) under our fingernails and all over our hair, skin, mouths, noses and intenstinal tracts.
     Some body parts are supposed to be free of weird organisms--they're sterile--and these include the brain, liver, spleen, heart, pancreas, ovaries, prostate, muscles, chest cavity and peritoneum (the slippery, hollowed-out abdominal space within which all our internal organs slide around).   But, in fact, these organs in turn are made up of cells which probably think of themselves as "independent," because they have little brains (nuclei) and energy storehouses (mitochondria) and internal "organs" (ribosomes, Golgi bodies), and they operate within their own time-frames, not takng orders from anyone except the big boss (sometimes) via hormones secreted by the brain.  And within these cells, it's reasonable to suppose that the ribosomes and mitochondria and multitudinous other subcellular structures consider themselves independent, since they're able to operate on automatic pilot in ways that correlate with how we humans live our separate lives within the macrocosm of the human race.  It's possible to follow this line of reasoning down to the very atoms that are the nuclear basis of our cells, and to imagine that they, too, are spiralling independently within the molecules they comprise, and that their electrons, neutrons and protons have the same perspective, and so do the six flavors of quarks that are the sub-elements of these hadrons. 
     The point is, individual humans are giant, vibrating communities of living creatures, gazillions of them, hanging out together on one big moving framework, like a many-roomed passenger ship--your body--as it cruises around the world.
     Probiotics are those passengers who set up house in our gastrointestinal tracts, minding their own business, using the airless spaces along the colonic villi as peaceful abodes for carrying out their metabolic processes in the same way that various mushrooms, mosses and lichens attach themselves to the gnarly bark of giant oaks and live out their private lives without partying too much, or otherwise getting out of control.
     Probiotics go by many names, often ending in "bacillus" (lactobacillus reuteri, lactobacillus rhamnosis, lactobacillus acidophilus...but also bifidobacterium animalus, escherichia coli, and lactococcus lactis) because they are elongated, tubular bacteria that look, under the microscope, like an unconventional pasta salad with elbow macaroni, fetuccini, and linguini.  The bacteria become enrobed in purple when crystal violet is used during gram staining to see and count them under the microscope.  This is something I do every day in my office, on vaginal specimens, which have lots of lactobacilli they borrow, presumably (physicians haven't been able to map out the route) from the intestinal tract.
     We are so well-adapted to our environment that our bodies have become friendly to the point of dependent on these bacterial squatters--in fact, our very lives depend on them.  Over millennia, probiotic bacteria have been easy for humans to ingest and harbor, because they live on the surface of practically every plant in the wild.  Cut up a cabbage, or pluck an apple from a tree, or a Japanese plum, or a nasturtium blossom, and eat them without scrubbing or disinfecting their surfaces, and you'll have taken in a good supply of probiotics.   No need to gulp down yogurt as a medicinal supplement, or take expensive refrigerated capsules of probiotics.
     How many cabbages, apples and nasturtium blossoms have you eaten today? 
     That's the problem.  There are no probiotics in pasteurized, hot-packed, dehydrated, or canned foods.  Both toxic and beneficial bacteria are killed by pesticides and processing.  There aren't any probiotics in Krispy Kreme donuts, or drive-through cheeseburgers, or fried chicken from the grocery store delicatessen.  When you wash your organic fruits and vegetables before eating them, you wash off the probiotics.
     There aren't even probiotics in most yogurt, which is supposed to be made with live, cultured, probiotic bacteria.  If you don't believe this, try using that yogurt as a starter for making your own batch of yogurt at home.  You'll discover that the milk doesn't "set," because there aren't enough probiotics in that so-called healthy yogurt to make flea-saliva curdle.  Therefore, commercial yogurt isn't replenishing your GI tract with the organisms you think you're getting.
     I'm not willing to make broad-reaching claims for the miraculous, health-giving benefits of probiotics.  I will say, as a self-named anthropologist and as a physician, that it's dangerous to stray too far from the biological roots of our being.
     Which means:  the closer you adhere to the diet your ancestors followed a hundred or a thousand years ago, the better.  Isn't this common sense?  Our genes can't alter, via beneficial mutations, our overall physiology at the accelerated rate our lifestyles have changed, so we're probably suffering--in vague and not so vague ways--from a host symptoms and illnesses (especially auto-immune diseases). Our intestinal tracts don't know how to get along without those friendly cohabitants to whom they've rented space for twenty thousand years, and our neuronal structures don't know what avalanche has befallen them in the form of twenty-first century techno-electro-satellite-transmitted assaults and impetuses.  Our poor muscle fibers, twitching like housebound puppies in anticipation of hours of stretching and galavanting across great stretches of savannah--activity that has been biologically programmed to the point of becoming an imperative for healthy functioning--don't know why they're stuck, day after day, it seems, paralytically, to the seat-cushions of our office chairs and TV sofas.  What's going on?--they must be screaming.
     And so are our GI tracts--crying out for the friendly bacteria that have made quick work of digestion since the dawn of mankind, and have contributed to our immune functioning in ways we are only beginning to understand.  
     Probiotics are like the grass in your lawn.  If you eradicate it, you get a mess of weeds.  If you seed the lawn with grass, the weeds are kept in check.  When I look at slides of the mucosal elements inside my patients, three out of four have no lactobacilli--a shocking statistic.  It's a little like saying that three out of four people don't have arms, or legs, or part of their brains.  In fact, lactobacilli operate a little like the brains of digestion, making decisions about which foodstuffs are worth absorbing, and which should be detoxified and sent out the back door.
     You can't function normally without probiotic organisms lining your gut, from top to bottom, and are especially populous in the lower intestinal tract.  And the best way to get these organisms is not to take pills, but to make yogurt at home, and sauerkraut, and pickles, and olives, and to eat fruit right off the tree, and to walk around your organic garden--or someone's organic garden--plucking tomatoes and arugula, popping blueberries, munching on pears and sweet peas, and having faith that these edibles, with their patina of soil-dust, are not "dirty" or "dangerous" because they haven't been washed, but as natural and health-enhancing for us as they are for the squirrels and chipmunks and other wild, energetic creatures who make a steady diet of unwashed foodstuffs, and seem awfully healthy to me.   

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