Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.
You and the billions of bacteria on and in your body form a partnership that has been evolving over millions of years but we are well on the way to dissolving that partnership.
The fiber-containing foods that we discussed last week (prebiotics) are essential to our good health and to that of our microscopic partners, most of which live within our lower intestine. If we fail to nurture them they can't protect us.
In addition to contributing nutrients, this normal flora protects us from serious infection. Harmful bacteria form a very small percentage of the germs in existence. As long as we maintain a healthy population of "friendlies" the disease-bearers can't penetrate our defenses. Beginning with prolonged breastfeeding and continuing with a diet that is high in fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains we encourage the growth of protective bacteria.
Since the middle of the last century we have been starving our defenders. The smattering of lettuce, tomatoes and French-fried potatoes that we get with our junk food make up a large portion of the vegetables in the American diet. Proper nutrients such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and asparagus hardly ever show up on an adult's plate and almost never on a child's. We've eliminated the bran from our breads and cereals. When a dangerous germ like E. coli O157:H7 arrives in tainted hamburger or even in ordinarily healthy spinach there are no defenders against its destructive, sometimes fatal, behavior.
We have barely crossed the threshold of knowledge about the interaction between our diet and the germs that actually form part of us. We know for certain that probiotic bacteria can help us to recover from the diarrhea that sometimes occurs following antibiotic treatment. A particular form of viral diarrhea that kills millions children around the world is another disorder than can be slowed by probiotics. The right kinds of bacteria can ease the discomfort of lactose intolerance, enhance immunity against respiratory infections and reduce the risk of certain cancers.
As we grow older our immunity begins to weaken but it's due to lifestyle, not aging. Interrelated factors such as maintaining normal body fat, a diet that includes generous helpings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, sufficient protein from both plant and animal sources, a steady supply of omega-3 fats and moderate physical activity all work together to help us to navigate a germ-laden world.
Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.