Sunday, August 11, 2013

Body Ecology: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

What if I told you that you are only 10% human? I'm not saying you are part chimp or alien, although science shows that we are descendants of one and conspirists say the other is "the missing link." What I am saying is that 90% of your cells are distinctly not human. Scientists used to think of the human body as a physical island, but in the last ten years research has shown that this island is actually heavily populated with a complex system of invisible inhabits. In fact, there are trillions of microorganisms living in each human body.

We've all gotten a "bad bug" from time to time. Whether it's an illness, or food poisoning, they eventually make their way out of our system. But now scientists understand that there are many microorganisms that live in every part of our bodies. What do these organisms for us? Are they good or bad for our bodies? How can we manage our island ecosystem to our benefit? Like a naturalist, we want to create a good environment for the critters who belong there and keep out the ones that don't. Here, I will share my knowledge about the good, the bad and the ugly microbial flora, which I have learned about in an effort to cultivate my own thriving ecosystem.

The Good: Essential and Beneficial Flora 

Organisms that provide benefits to us are often referred to as probiotics or beneficial flora. Our bodies have evolved to live in a symbiotic system with many strains, or types, of flora. Most of these microbes live in our gut, where they do very important work in assisting with digestion of foods. They break down our foods and help transport nutrients - in fact some foods cannot be broken down without them. Dietary fiber is actually bad for you without the aid of essential flora. Milk can be difficult for many to digest without a good gut colony. Additionally, gut flora produce vitamins K and B, as well as amino acids, so that we can have a steady supply throughout the day, and not just when we eat foods containing those nutrients. The best foods and supplements are useless to us without our fantastic little friends. The main strains of good flora are strains of Lactobacteria, for which Lactobaccillis is the original poster child of the probiotic movement, and Bifidobacteria, which Jamie Lee Curtis touts on Activa commercials. 

The Bad: Infection from Outside

You've heard of rotten food giving us E. Coli. Raw chicken, or improperly handled spinach can give you a dose of these unfriendly visitors. These guys are really tourists on your island, and eventually the locals kick them out. In fact, it is other strains of beneficial E. Coli that do the best job getting rid of  harmful E. Coli. In 1994 the World Health Organization stated that probiotics were the best defense in protecting from bacterial infection, second only to antibiotics. When traveling in places with untreated water, it is often recommended to take probiotic supplements to fight off a bad invasion. Even in the USA, we regularly fight off small bands of bad bacteria, thanks to our good gut flora.

The Ugly: Opportunistic Flora 

Unfortunately antibiotics and probiotic supplements are not enough to maintain our ecosystem. In fact, antibiotics kill not only the bad bacteria, but also the good. It's like bombing your island. The few that survive scramble to set up camp again, and often it's the guys who aren't so helpful who claim the most territory. These are called opportunistic flora, and they generally live in all humans and can provide some benefits when their populations are limited. It's like bees: having some bees is helpful for pollinating flowers, but do you want your island to be swarming with bees everywhere you go? No, you want just enough bees to do the job, and no more. These microbes can be difficult to control once they take over. And some of them are completely resistant to antibiotics but can be put in check by a critical mass of good flora.

Without a thriving population of the good guys, your digestive track is left vulnerable. The good flora usually protect your gut lining to regulate what goes into your bloodstream. In their absence, the opportunistic flora get into your bloodstream, where they essentially poison you. Additionally, they bore holes through your gut lining, which allows other poisons to get through. The milk protein Casein gets through these holes, where it has negative effects once in your blood - often causing lethargy and depression. Most symptoms of the common Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which currently accounts for 12% of doctor visits, can be attributed to an imbalance of gut flora.

The Right Balance: 

Maintaining a beneficial balance of microbial flora is not so easy to do in the modern age. Stress on us places stress on our most handy helpers. Pollutions and toxins harm our finest friends. Processed foods, especially complex carbohydrates, that are more difficult to digest, place more stress on our friends and often help out the opportunistic flora. While antibiotics are necessary and beneficial in cases where permanent damage or death can occur, they are sometimes over used today to the point of compromising the gut ecology. Additionally we consume a great amount of antibiotics through eating industrially produced meats.

Many people are returning to diets inspired by our ancestors - diets filled with organic produce and pastured meats. Cultured foods were an important part of the ancesteral diet because the culturing helps preserve the foods and provides probiotics. You can make your own cultured foods easily for little cost!  Today we can also take probiotic pills. It is important to note that these supplements are not going to be new residents, but are more like the Red Cross who comes in and provides some support and then departs. Like the Red Cross, you have to send enough help in order to make a difference - a good probiotic supplement should have at least 10 billion organisms, from several strains of bacteria. In order to re-establish a colony of good flora, it can often be necessary to make major lifesytle and dietary changes. This depends on the severity of your situation. For reference, I take 50-100 billion organisms a day, coming from 9-10 strains. Symptoms of indigestion, irregular bowel activity, lethary, feeling burnt out, or also emotional issues likes depression and anxiety can be signs that your gut flora is compromised. In these cases you should speak with a health care professional. Advertised products like Activa may not help you as the sugar content will feed the opportunistic flora and may not offer that much benefit.

It's easy to damage the good gut flora, and hard to get rid of opportunistic ones. If you currently have a healthy balance, it can be important to take steps to maintain it. As we get older, it is harder to do so. This is why some people develop a food intolerance or two later in life - when the population of mini digestors diminishes,  the ability to digest certain foods also lessens. The basis of your health depends on your ability to digest nutrients and thus depends on managing your microbial ecosystem so that our island can thrive.

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