Probiotics “colonize” our inner spaces. The verb smacks of intrusion or illicit occupation. Yet we know that bacteria predate humans by several billion years so perhaps we are their guests.
It may be more accurate to describe them as “friends and family.” Over the last 200,000 years since humans emerged, the relationship has changed drastically, whether by climate catastrophes such as the Ice Age or for a more recent example, the epidemic of extracting children through the belly and bypassing the birth canal. As is now known, this Cesarean shortcut snubs the maternal microbes, not a healthy way to start out.
But that’s just one modern way to subvert our microbes. Look at this list of changes in the last 100 years—a blip of time—which may impact our microbes:
- 80,000+ synthetic chemicals introduced, many which enter into our food supply: antibiotics and growth hormones in animal feed; fungicides and pesticides on produce; preservatives, colorants and flavor enhancers in processing; plastic in packaging as well as reheating and serving containers of food and beverages. Some are added by design while others latch on or leach out unintentionally. The effect on our microbes can be devastating.
- Poor diet: Food is plentiful in most parts of the world but it has suffered in the hands of some biotechnologists and food processors. Read an ingredient list on a frozen pizza and you will see far more than wheat, tomatoes and cheese. Hundreds of additives deliver it to your freezer. We have traded valuable preservation methods for chemicals with unknown effects. For example, fermentation produces a steady stream of fresh probiotics and other useful items including short chain fatty acids. Fiber– These non-digestible starches feed microbes. Fiber also makes us feel full, a valuable ally against obesity. Then why did cottony white bread, stripped of nutrition, become the emblem of modernity?
- Medications: Antibiotics for certain kill bacteria—that’s their job. The collateral damage of ousting a pathogen is the healthy probiotic community. The average child in the UK has taken ten courses by the age of 16. In countries where antibiotics are easily bought over pharmacy counters, the numbers may be far higher. Other medications can also tamper with microbes. Antacids and other drugs such as proton pump inhibitors inhibit gastric acid secretion and are used to treat gastritis, reflux, and peptic ulcer disease. Unfortunately this new more alkaline climate can be less than conducive for some helpful bacteria and more apt to encourage pathogen growth.
- Sterilization fever: Even though cleaning agents will stop pathogens in hospitals and nursing homes and reduce exposure from cutting boards and spoiled foods, excessive hygiene can knock out the good bacteria too.
Be kind to your microbes. Like friends, they will return the favor.