Beneficial Organisms in Unforeseen Places

indigestion, gas, burping, constipation, diarrheaThis blog post is not for the squeamish.  Although if you’re one to get squeamish, looking at the balance of your gut flora may be in order.  Abdominal complaints are far and wide in my patient population; and, I venture to say that nearly 100% of people in the United States have issues with the balance of their gut flora.  In other words, we should all be aware that maintaining and protecting our gut flora is a top priority of our health.  With colon cancer being such a common cancer (usually ranking in the top 3 or top 4 types of cancer), being reticent about fixing your indigestion, gas and irregular bowel habits isn’t doing you any good.  However, colon cancer isn’t the only risk of an imbalanced gut flora.  Surprisingly, balancing the gut flora has far reaching effects that range from both ends of the spectrum from benefiting eczema and other skin complaints to urinary tract infections and sinusitis.  Jim Thornton, in his article (The Dirty Little Secret of Perfect Health) in the May 2012 edition of Men’s Health Magazine, discloses a microbiological belief that a balanced gut flora may even be at the root of metabolic syndrome (a common condition these days, consisting of insulin resistance and resulting in high blood sugar, increased levels of fats in the blood and increased abdominal weight). 

When your gut flora is balanced you have more “good” bacteria than “bad” bacteria, and what this means to the host is that the good bacteria provide you with benefits whereas the bad bacteria either don’t do anything for you or actually harm you.  Good bacteria are organisms that breakdown certain foods, produce certain vitamins (Vit K and biotin for instance), and perform important immune function for the host.  We’ve developed a symbiotic relationship with these organisms.  Thornton writes that 10 trillion individual bacteria from thousands of different species colonize the digestive tract.  Where do we get these bacteria?, you might ask.  They’re all picked up from our environment, and most are gained by the time we’re 5 yrs old, whether it’s from being delivered by a vaginal birth, breast feeding and other skin to skin contact, sucking one’s thumbs, taste testing everything around, or eating mud pies.  In essence it’s by not being too overly clean that we gain the aid of these helping friends.  The sad news is that they’re easily destroyed by antibiotics, the Standard American Diet, stress, and illnesses.  Thornton quotes Martin Blaser, MD, a professor of medicine and microbiology at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, “The average child in the United States has received 10-20 courses of antibiotics by the time he or she is 18 years old.”  And this isn’t mentioning all the antibiotics a person receives from the food they eat, products they use, and water they drink.  Yes, antibiotics do enter the ground water from the sewage of those medicated. 

And we’re not just dealing with bacteria when it comes to gut flora.  This gut flora is a rich ecosystem made up of bacteria and viruses and the food they live on.  Beneficial flora, and in this case, suspected viruses, have been known since the late 1800’s when a British chemist, E. H. Hankin found that people drinking water from the Ganges River in India weren’t getting sick with cholera like their non-drinking (or boiled water) cohorts.  The viruses they suspected are now called phages and they’re present wherever bacteria are present.  They aim to keep the bacteria in check by attaching to them and causing them to burst.  In Georgia (formerly part of the USSR), they treat intestinal infections and wound infections with phage therapies.  And for the squeamish part… Most of where they get these phages are from sewage.  You can read more about these phages (including the quotes used here) by reading the April 2003 New Scientist article: Set a Bug to Catch a Bug by Clare Wilson.  And, if you’re interested in reading more, check out the work and blog of Betty Kutter at the Evergreen State College:

Squeamish beware: The purpose of Thornton’s article is fecal transplants or also known as human probiotic infusion.  It was first introduced in the medical literature in 1958.  He gives 2 florid examples of people long suffering from C. difficile (a gut infection that makes most people terribly sick).  After trying many therapies and failing to correct the infection, Dr. Alexander Khoruts, MD, a gastroenterologist, and his patients gave this therapy a try.  With his 63 year old female patient, he took “a 3-oz sample of feces from her husband, placed it in a blender with a saline solution and created a ‘special smoothy.’  After filtering and screening this for transmissible diseases it was ready for transplant by colonoscope.”  Within days the long standing symptoms were gone. 

While this is shocking enough to get you to pay attention to the balance of your gut flora, you are probably asking what can you do to balance your gut flora short of getting a fecal transplant or keep it balanced once you get it there.  First of all go see a homeopath.  Homeopaths have long used homeopathic remedies made from gut flora, called bowel nosodes, to balance the digestive tract.  The main researcher in this area was Dr. Edward Bach who started working with gut flora around 1912.  Most of you know him in reference to the Bach Flower Remedies.  He did in fact work with both the sweet and not so sweet elements of life. 

Here are some additional measures to take: 1. Avoid antibiotics for all simple purposes.  Understand that we can’t kill all bacteria but that we have to increase our strength and resistance to them, something Julia Segre, PhD, a skin researcher at the National Human Genome Research Institute, agrees with.  “Our goal is not to annihilate them but to maintain a healthy balance.  It’s time to start having a more kind and loving relationship with our bacteria.”  2. Drink purified water from a company that ensures it’s filters remove antibiotics, pesticides, organisms, and heavy metals.  3. Eat plenty of prebiotics (foods that support the growth of good bacteria) which include foods like whole grains, soybeans, raw garlic, leek, and onion, dandelion greens, Jerusalem artichokes, jicama, chicory root.  4. Eat probiotic-rich foods such as sauerkraut and Kim Chee, miso, yogurt and kefir, and eating unwashed pesticide-free produce.  5. Take high-quality probiotic supplements.  Beware that not all probiotics are equal.  You want to use a trusted source made by companies that quality test their product.  One clue to a poor quality is non-refrigerated probiotics, but it’s not the only thing to pay attention to.  For more information about this topic, read the probiotic research of Sheryl Berman, PhD on the quality of store-bought probiotics (for the results see the end of this article, specifically the lack of organisms and contaminates recovered- namely enterococcus and enterobacter- in some of the products).  6. Eat your daily apple; it may very well keep the doctor away.  Fiber feeds the good bacteria that then help to keep the colonocytes (cells of the colon) healthy.  7. De-stress, least of which, make sure you’re not eating on the run.  An old Chinese proverb explains this well: one should chew their liquids and drink their solids.

Probiotic Research of  Sheryl Berman and Diane Spicer

Table One: Characteristics of Refrigerated Lactobacillus Supplements *

Table Two: Characteristics of Non-Refrigerated Lactobacillus Dietary Supplements*

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