“Nothing is one” says Murray Bail, author of the book Eucalyptus. To me, this means that life is by definition a cooperative venture. The presence of other living creatures is imperative for our own survival. Competition does occur, but it is far less taxing and potentially more rewarding to cooperate. Medical science often uses the analogy of “waging war” when dealing with microbes. The arsenal for this war includes antibiotics, literally meaning against life. This is an example of competition. However, from time immemorial, humans have been using probiotic (literally for life) cultures of microorganisms in a cooperative alliance for good health. Since humans are so clearly outnumbered, it would be in our best interest to forge a cooperative relationship with the microbial world.
A specific example of cooperation exists in our digestive system. Many different bacteria and fungi live in this environmental niche. We provide these organisms with food and safety. They provide us with better immune function, better availability of vitamins and minerals, and the elimination of the toxic by-products of digestion. A whole constellation of these “probiotic” organisms have been identified by Western science. Most well-known are members of the genus Lactobacillus, which was first identified by Elie Metchnikoff in nineteenth-century Bulgaria. He wrote a book about these bacteria entitled “The Prolongation of Life” which promoted eating live bacteria for good health. This genus of bacteria converts lactose, the sugar in milk, to lactic acid and is also known as acidophilus. Other organisms include the yeast Saccharomyces, and bacteria such as Streptococcus, Klebsiella, Bifidobacteria, and Staphylococcus. There are doubtless many more comprising the unique terroir1 of our colon. These organisms must also co-exist with each other in order to survive. When this cooperation is compromised, the result is that the lining of the colon wall becomes weakened due to inflammation of the GI tract. This “leakiness” of the gut lining allows the inflammatory substances to gain access to other areas of the body. Aside from obvious effects like diarrhea, poor absorption of necessary vitamins and minerals, and stomach-ache, this can also lead to other inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and allergies. Infection with a disease organism, such as C. difficile, can also occur.
Since a healthy group of gut flora is essential to our health, some means of encouraging them seems like a good idea. Despite this, lactobacilli are scarce in the GI tracts of people living in industrialized nations. In one study, L. plantarum was present in only 25% of the US population, but in 100% of both Asian and African populations. The low population of lactobacilli is probably because of the lack of living foodstuffs available in the Western diet due to pasteurization and processing. Otherwise, lactobacilli are ubiquitous in the environment. They are responsible for the fermentation of foods such as sauerkraut, salami, and kimchee. Lactobacilli occur naturally with other microorganisms in raw dairy products like yogurt and kefir. Many commercially-prepared fermented products in industrialized countries undergo pasteurization before sale, which kills the probiotic organisms except when a commercially prepared culture is added back afterward. In developing countries, the acidification that results from lactobacillus fermentation serves to preserve food and enhance its nutrient content and digestibility.
These organisms don’t stay in our GI tract, but instead must be constantly replenished from a dietary source. This is why live-culture foods should be a part of our daily intake. In order for these organisms to perform their vital function they must first be alive, be able to adhere to the GI tract, be metabolically active, be acid and bile resistant, have antimicrobial activity against pathogens, and reduce colonic pH. There are many commercially available probiotic formulations of variable microbe content and efficacy, but they are much more expensive than cultured foods prepared at home. In addition, there isn’t any conclusive evidence that the best mix of organisms is the same from person to person or from place to place. Many studies have shown commercial probiotics to provide health benefits, but to my knowledge there is no study comparing commercial products and probiotic foodstuffs, such as sauerkraut, kimchee, and yogurt, which can easily, safely and inexpensively be made at home.
We cannot live healthy lives without these organisms. Although antibiotics and pasteurization can save lives, their over-use has consequences, such as increasing the rates of asthma in children as well as the incidence of C. difficile colitis and the emergence of other resistant disease organisms. Unlike our microflora, antibiotics are not essential to health, and with the ever-growing problem of microbial resistance to antibiotics, we should change our medical prescribing habits and dramatically increase our consumption of probiotics. In 1994, the WHO deemed probiotics to be the most important immune defense when microbial resistance to antibiotics is a factor. Since in study after study probiotics have been shown to help the immune function of patients with a wide variety of diseases, probiotics would seem to be the best defense – period. Probiotics do not cause any serious adverse reactions the way antibiotics can. Lactobacilli and Saccharomyces boulardii will not cause disease even in immunocompromised patients such as those with HIV/AIDS. In fact, these particular microorganisms have been shown to restore immune function to those who had lost it altogether.
So why are we killing our allies? The antibiotic culture at the USDA and FDA needs to be re-appraised. The current policy of food pasteurization is useful in mass-production facilities, but in artisanal and local markets it is a ruinous practice. To blindly pasteurize a properly crafted raw food is to completely spoil a health-giving and vital product that poses no real threat to human health. A sea change in the bureaucratic culture must happen so that these unique products will continue to be available. Rather than forcing producers to adhere to regimented processing procedures and to purchase expensive equipment, government officials should instead be testing the producer’s final product. This would not only reduce the costs imposed on would-be artisans, it would prevent some of the food poisoning that already occurs in the supposedly “safe” food chain. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating”- ergo, it is not in the kitchen. Food poisoning continues to be a problem despite, or in some cases because of the use of pasteurization and chemical sterilizers. Making the world unwelcome for one type of microorganism only creates an opportunity for another, perhaps less friendly one. As the ancient Roman poet Horace said, Naturam expellas furca tamen usque recurret — Nature can be expelled with a pitchfork, but she always returns.
1 Terroir is a French term originally used by wine and coffee aficionados to denote the special characteristics of geography that bestowed individuality upon the food product. It can be very loosely translated as “a sense of place” which is embodied in certain qualities, and the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the manufacture of the product. Some assert that terroir is distinct from the characteristics imparted by the plant variety, the vintage and production methods (vinification, etc.), and is the product of a range of local influences that are transmitted into the character of the product. [from Wikipedia] This concept can be extended to include any microclimate.