Let’s take a quick pop quiz: What do obesity, diabetes, depression, heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, dermatitis, diarrhea, allergic rhinitis, the common cold, acne, chronic fatigue syndrome, and food allergies have in common? Does it include those many bacteria floating around in our system?
The Battle for Bacteria in Your Stomach
According to recent studies, these conditions are all affected by a burbling bacterial war happening deep in your bowels. It’s bifidobacterium vs. E. coli, lactobacillus vs. clostridium. It’s the probiotics (good bacteria) vs. the pathogenic (bad) bacteria.
Here’s the thing: your body has 100 trillion bacteria in it. (If you counted one per second, it would take you 3.2 million years to count them all.) These bacteria live (mostly) in your GI tract, which has the surface area of a football field. If the probiotics are losing the pitched bacterial battle taking place, the pathogenic bacteria will have their way. (You’ll never completely get rid of pathogenic bacteria. Most experts say the optimal ratio is 85/15 good to bad.)
A surplus of pathogenic bacteria creates mold, putrefaction, and releases toxins into your bloodstream causing diarrhea, bloating, bad breath, and emotional problems. Your liver will be overloaded trying to filter these toxins and you’ll likely suffer from depression and brain fog. On top of that, 80 percent of your immune system is in your gut, so your immune function will be compromised, maybe severely.
In “A Case of Friendly Fire” from the March 2013 issue of Natural Solutions, Jeffrey Hendricks, MD, puts it bluntly: “If you get a football field-sized organ angry, you are not going to thrive, to say the least.”
The Power of Probiotics and Bacteria
Donna Gates, author of the excellent and deservedly popular book, The Body Ecology Diet (and its follow-up book, The Baby Boomer Diet) puts a more feminine gloss on the whole bacteria situation, dubbing it your “inner ecosystem.”
A healthy inner ecosystem is a dynamic garden of beneficial and neutral bacteria and yeast called microflora. They live and associate with their environment (your intestines), creating a vibrant interrelating community.
Vibrant might be a bit much (do they have poetry readings down there?) but her point stands. She notes that beneficial microflora ensure we are well-nourished, assist in the breakdown of foods, produce vitamins B and K, extract and retain minerals, prevent toxins from damaging the intestinal lining, protect us from colon cancer, and are essential for immunity.
Pasteur’s Half-Truth about Bacteria
As you may have guessed, the average American colon is not the scene of a “vibrant interrelating community.” It’s more like Gary, Indiana: gritty, urban, polluted, and poorly policed. The unsavory elements are taking over, and I’m blaming Louis Pasteur.
Pasteur was brilliant, yes, and he saved a lot of lives. But he didn’t distinguish between good and bad bacteria. In fact, Pasteur believed a healthy body had no bacteria in it. (He was off by 100 trillion.) Thus, germs and bacteria are the enemy, to be done away with whenever possible—Pasteur was the “kill-‘em-all-and-let-God-sort-‘em-out” brand of bacteriophobe.
Antibiotics are wonderful medicines in many instances, but along with wiping out the pathogenic bacteria, they take out the probiotics as well. And, indeed, we live in an antibiotic culture now: there are antibiotics in our meats and dairy, our soap is antiseptic, and our water is chlorinated, there are pesticides on our non-organic foods, and pollution in the air. We think of antibiotics as being penicillin and Clarithromycin, but for our purposes antibiotics are anything that kills bacteria—and our culture is full of them.
Which Dog Are You Feeding?
There’s an old Native American story that’s particularly apropos here. This version of it is relayed by George Bernard Shaw: “A Native American elder once described his own inner struggles in this manner: ‘Inside of me there are two dogs. One of the dogs is mean and evil. The other dog is good. The mean dog fights the good dog all the time.’ When asked which dog wins, he reflected for a moment and replied, ‘The one I feed the most.’”
Probiotic bacteria and pathogenic bacteria like to eat different things. Probiotic bacteria like to eat “prebiotics.” These are the soluble fibers, foods that reach the colon more or less intact, which feed lactobacillus and all his friends. The standard recommendation is that we should get six grams a day of prebiotic fiber. High quality supplements are a great way to do this. If you want to get it in a food source, here’s a list of foods high in prebiotics along with how much you’d have to eat to get your daily dose: raw chicory root (1/3 ounce), raw Jerusalem artichoke (3/4 ounce), raw dandelion greens (1 ounce), raw garlic (1.2 ounces), raw leeks (1.8 ounces), raw onion (2.5 ounces), cooked onion (4 ounces), and raw banana (1.3 pounds).
Feeding the pathogenic bacteria (aka the bad dog) requires sugar and processed foods low in fiber. So a common scenario is a course of antibiotics that kills a bacterial infection, but takes a number of probiotics along with it. If the Standard American Diet (SAD) is consumed and no probiotics are taken afterwards, the pathogens gain ground. Extrapolate this out over decades and the consequences are not good.
Restoring order in the murky world of microflora is pretty simple: consume quality probiotics, consume things for those healthy bacteria to eat (prebiotics), and cut out as much sugar and processed food as you can.
So where do you get probiotics? Fermented foods are an excellent source. If you’re new to the fermented food bandwagon, this would be pickled vegetables (sauerkraut, turnips, cucumbers, onions, squash, carrots, or cabbage), tempeh, fermented milk products like kefir or yogurt, natto, or kimchi. Many health gurus recommend fermented raw milk products, but of course that can be difficult to find. The essential thing to know is if the bacteria were cultured after pasteurization. If you’re feeling ambitious, the gold standard for probiotics would be to ferment your own foods at home. It’s relatively easy to do and wonderfully healthy.
Supplements, as the name would suggest, are intended to supplement our diets. While it would be ideal to get all our probiotics and prebiotics from food, that isn’t always feasible, so a quality supplement is invaluable. Sarah Jean Barrett, ND, recommends a six month treatment with 20 billion organisms a day to repopulate the GI tract for people getting over candida overgrowth. For those of you with a less severe imbalance, try a month with a high quality probiotic supplement while also making sure you’re getting your prebiotics. Be sure to seek out reputable brands, including: UAS Labs, Dr. Ohhira’s, Garden of Life, ReNew Life, Rainbow Light, and Good Belly.
It’s great to have ideals, but looking at this pragmatically, most people are not going to cut out sweets. If you have a sweet tooth, Pro Yo frozen yogurt is a great alternative to ice cream, and is actually a big net gain in the health column. It has 20 grams of protein, three grams of fiber, and 200 billion live organisms, much more than most supplements. It is actually tolerated quite well by most people who are lactose intolerant.
Armed with this information (and with all apologies to monsieur Pasteur) you’re now ready to reclaim that football-field sized organ at the center of your well-being.
By Adam Swenson