Our bodies, our bugs, and learning to love the bacteria that live inside us:Jane Macdougall


Here’s a radical idea for you, one that could land you in big trouble in some of the darker corners of the world.

And by darker corners, I mean the U.S. or Europe.

No disease that can be treated by diet should be treated by any other means.”

That sentence was uttered by Maimonides, the famous Spanish-born, Sephardic physician of medieval times.

It could also have been uttered by Dr. Gregor Reid, the Scottish-born chair of Human Microbiology and Probiotics at the University of Western Ontario of present times. Both of the good doctors are proponents of the idea that food — good, old food — can be a powerful weapon against disease.

Maimonides had scientifically vague but anecdotally supported, ideas informed by a lifetime of administering to the afflicted. Reid has had the benefit of modern science to inform his position. What Maimonides referred to simply as food, Reid refers to as pre- and probiotics. Reid is a marquee player in the field of this emerging field of microbiology. Maimonides died in 1204; Reid is still here fighting the good fight — and it is most definitely a fight. He maintains that drug regulatory bodies are obstructing progress in combating, as well as preventing, the spread of certain diseases. He finds it odd that the regulatory bodies “have no problem approving drugs that can kill you,” but balk at more benign measures.

If there were a temperate and simple path to alleviating some of the world’s pain and suffering, you’d imagine the medical world would leap upon it. Why we don’t is a subject worth considering, and it’s not an evil Big Pharma plot. Well, not entirely.

Back at the dawn of the 20th century, there was a great need to arrest rampant medical quackery. The FDA was created in 1903 to deal with the snake-oil salesmen preying upon an unsuspecting public. It was a decent proposition but you know what they say about good intentions. The champions for probiotics now find themselves pitted against agencies like the FDA simply because of the pre-emptive ruling that states you cannot treat, prevent or cure any disease with anything that is not a recognized drug. The same bureaucratic caveats exists in Europe. Yogurt is not a drug. Antibiotics are. Antibiotics win.

We are nine-tenths bacteria. Bugs! We’re more bugs than anything else . Health Canada, however, has taken a more progressive view. We allow probiotic products to claim a health benefit. But before we get into the parry and thrust of microbiology, let’s begin with a primer.  Microbiota is the name for the bacteria that live within you, making up your personal microbiome. The word probiotic means “for life.” The word antibiotic means “against life.” Prebiotics are the compounds that stimulate the growth or activity of certain probiotics. So, we have the stadium, the home team, the visitors and the cheerleaders. In medicine, as in sports, the home team has the advantage. Probiotic microbiology endeavours to coach the home team to a win.

The recent discovery of the human microbiome has revealed that we are nine-tenths bacteria. Bugs! We’re more bugs than anything else. For decades, the prevailing medical standard was to treat anything nasty that befalls us with antibiotics. In fact, according to Reid, the average adult will have about 50 prescriptions of antibiotics in his lifetime. This is why a well-balanced investment portfolio will have its share of Big Pharma stock. Fifty ’scripts per person!

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