Something Bugging You?
©2003 Melissa Kaplan
Long ago, while still in my teens, I discovered that if I ate some yogurt while taking antibiotics, I would not get a yeast infection. It always puzzled me why the prescribing physicians never mentioned yogurt as an easy (and palatable) way to avoid subsequent office visits and prescriptions for anti-fungal medications.
Ah. Wait. I think I just figured out why they didn't recommend yogurt.
Or: could the oversight on their part have had more to do with the fact that, thirty years ago as now, nutrition is given short shrift in medical school? Or because, for the most part, the mainstream medical establishment and general public still feels that all microorganisms are to be eradicated as quickly and lethally as possible?
That attitude has always bothered me. While antimicrobials do have their proper uses in fighting infection and disease, perhaps we were too consistently negative in our attitude towards all microbes, and not concerned enough about possible collateral damage?
When I first started working with starved and malnourished iguanas, I found that when I gave their dysfunctional gut a dose of yogurt or liquid acidophilus, they were able to digest their food much better and recovered more quickly. The same was true of iguanas who were put on systemic antibiotics for infections. I didn't take any myself, other than the occasional serving of yogurt, because my gut function was just fine, thank you very much.
Or so I thought. After suddenly developing problems digesting protein and fats, I had a digestive analysis test done. That proved to be quite an eye opener. Not only was there hardly any acid, there wasn't much in the way of beneficial flora. There was rather more Citrobacter than was appropriate, no specific undesirables like Candida, but there was another problem. Something was creating high levels of an enzyme that was affecting my estrogen level. One of the solutions to that problem, as it turns out, was to take Saccharomyces boulardii. This beneficial fungus keeps many potentially harmful naturally occurring gut organisms down to benign levels. Normally, I would take a bottle of this every 4-5 months. Since I've been on high dose antibiotics for Lyme disease, I am taking S. boulardii for 5 days every month, along with the probiotics I take four times daily. This helps counteract problems caused by the antibiotic killing off too many beneficial organisms, and is in addition to the FOS and probiotics I now take several times a day, along with acid and digestive enzymes.
Worms Go In
Both of these factors just increased my horror at the thought of all the people who were going about trying to eradicate parasites in their bodies (and, in some cases, in their pets), without any idea of what was living in their bodies and how those organisms may be affecting them, for better or for worse. Instead, the assumption was that parasites are bad. Period.
While it is true that we are under attack, the invaders, in most cases, are not new. As discussed in Carl Zimmer's Parasite Rex and Arno Karlen's Biography of A Germ, our physical environments and bodies were invaded so long ago that, for the most part, the enemy has been assimilated and, if not conquered and turned to forces of good, at least they aren't doing as much--or any--harm. Far from existing in supreme isolation from other organisms, a human being is just one huge ambulating colony of hundreds, if not thousands, of species of microorganisms, merrily going on about their highly varied lives. They have adapted far better to the environments in which they have set up housekeeping than have we humans in making our place here on Earth. Unbeknownst to us, we humans and our microbial inhabitants have both adapted and come to a relatively peaceful coexistence. Even beneficial: many of our E. coli strains, for example, earn their keep by producing vitamin K, an essential ingredient in our blood being able to clot when needed.
From the miniscule mites that inhabit our hair follicles to the not always beneficial bacteria, fungi and other organisms inhabiting our digestive tract, from our gums and teeth down to, well, the other end, we are the epitome of a mixed-use development, providing food, housing, and reproductive opportunities for the organisms that start colonizing us as we slide through our mother's birth canal.
to Basics: The Upside and Down
Parasite Rex is a fascinating look at a world seldom seen and thought of only when the body gets sick. Zimmer helps us see how parasites may be responsible for our health, too.
Many people will likely be surprised to find that some of their gut problems may be tied to the absence of sufficient numbers or types of parasites. Zimmer looks at the appearance and prevalence of colitis, Crohn's disease, and allergies in populations, and finds that there is a direct correlation between these conditions and how "primitive" or "civilized" a culture is. Peoples living without benefit of septic tanks and public sewer systems, and who do not fanatically apply antibacterial substances to everything they and their children touch don't have allergies. They don't get colitis. They don't get Crohn's. True, they get some things they'd rather not get, but they also don't spend large amounts of time as slaves to their dysfunctional gut and overly active histamine production.
How much do we not know about our brain, systems and organ functions because there are as yet no tests to identify and quantify all the beasties that live in our bodies? What types of health problems will we be able to resolve once we have a deeper understanding of just what is going on inside ourselves and other animals and plants? The mind boggles.
Zimmer's exuberant look at parasites does help us better understand their role in the environment and in the adaptive behaviors of both the parasites and their hosts. In learning more about their complex abilities to fend off our immune systems and the often convoluted lifecycles of these miniature marvels, we come to a better understanding of why we should not be so hasty to kill any parasite we encounter, and why it is so hard to develop tests to detect them and vaccines and drugs to combat the problematic ones.
In Karlen's Biography of A Germ, the germ in question is Borrelia burgdorferi, known as Bb by its researchers and unwilling human hosts. For those who haven't personally made its acquaintance, this is the spirochete that causes Lyme disease.
Far from being a new disease, or a disease endemic in the U.S. alone, Karlen explores the long career of the organism, untangling its distinguished ancestors as far back to the proverbial primordial soup. Karlen, a psychoanalyst with a penchant for history and biomedical science, draws a lyrical and sympathetic portrait of this organism who so recently (when compared to the millennia of its existence) found itself inside a new host with such disastrous effects: humans.
We cannot blame Bb for ending up in our blood stream, as it was our own doings that created the perfect environment for its primary hosts. Further, it was our desire to trade city living for increasingly pastoral suburbia that brought us into close and personal contact with the life cycles of the ticks primary hosts.
It is of little comfort to those of us with Lyme disease to know that, some day, Bb may reach an accommodation with our bodies and so no longer will cause people a problem when bitten by an infected tick or nymph. In the long history of parasitic microbes, we are but a speck on the clock of time.
Zimmer and Karlen are clearly inspired by--and fond of--their subjects. Zimmer's clear and engaging style introduces the reader to the vast panorama of parasites, giving them historical perspective as well as a taste of current research. Karlen's style is reminiscent of the natural history writers of old, when the pace of life was slower and language was savored in its own right. Both provide thoughtful accounts of indomitable organisms with whom we must bridge an understanding if we are to continue to alter our inner and outer environments.
Biography of a Germ, by Arno Karlen
Parasite Rex, by Carl Zimmer
Readers of Parasite Rex will find the following interesting: Frog Limb Deformities: Synergism Between Pesticide Exposure and Parasite Infection
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