Better Health, Naturally

Bacteria – Good and Bad

More than three centuries ago, western science turned to an investigative method called reductionism, the breaking down of complex things into component parts that were small and simple enough to study.

Ever since, the technique has been the key to spectacular discoveries. But there was also a fatal flaw in the system: science assumed – and still does, for the most part – that the principles observed in the parts of things could be extrapolated to the whole. What is observed in a single tree, for example, should apply to an entire forest.

But in the real world, that’s not how it works. Due to factors called “emergent properties,” things change as they become more complex, and the greater the complexity, the greater the change. This is as true in medicine as in any other science. Take bacteria, for example.

Something like 1000 trillion bacteria inhabit our bodies in hundreds of different species, many of them site-specific to the areas exposed to the environment such as the nose, throat, skin and especially the gastro-intestinal tract. They can be separated into probiotics (pro=for + biotic=life) and antibiotics (anti=against +biotic=life), and most, in their different ways, are absolutely essential for synthesizing vitamins, fighting off disease, digesting the food we eat, and performing any number of other functions that remain unknown to medical science.

Unknown, because – true to the reductionist tradition – research has focused, naturally enough, on the bacteria that cause disease – anything from tuberculosis to pneumonia to cancer to dental caries and leprosy. Meantime, the broader picture, the whole mutually-beneficial relationship between bacteria and their human host has been little studied and remains poorly understood.

As a consequence of this information vacuum, pharmaceutical antibiotics are prescribed with little understanding of their effect on vital bodily functions, particularly our immune system. The result – for all the undeniable benefits of antibiotics – is often serious, even fatal, side effects. Countless opportunistic pathogens inhabit our bodies at all times, and without the immune system to hold them in check, they are turned loose to attack their host – us.

The defense mechanisms that we disrupt – often with too little need or thought – are with us throughout life. Newborns come into the world without intestinal bacteria but are inoculated in the birth canal and through mother’s milk with lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, two of the most important probacterial strains for protecting the infant from disease. (Infant formulas contain many fewer of these bacteria.)

Later in life, women are shielded from some diseases throughout their child-bearing years by lactobacilli and bifidobacteria that colonize the vagina and lower pH levels to the point where many pathogens cannot survive.

So…if you must take antibiotics, it is important that you also take a supplement such as acidophilus (a species of lactobacillus) to replace the probacteria that are being killed by the drug. There are many bacterial supplements on the market, but to be effective, whatever you choose must be stable enough to survive gastric acid in the stomach and small intestine, must have the capacity to adhere to the mucosa wall of the small intestine and, finally, must be able to multiply and colonize the intestinal tract.

Sound awfully technical? Not really – ask your health professional. And if you do take a supplement, keep it as distant in time as you can from the antibiotic. For example, drugs morning and evening, take the supplement at noon. Otherwise, the antibiotic will kill it too.

©Dr. Ashely Gordon, 2007.

Better Health, Naturally