Microbes, probiotics, and prebiotics


Some time ago, Michael Pollan had an article in the New York Times Magazine about the cohabitation of microbes and human beings. It turns out that each one of us is a huge colony of cells, some of them specifically human, but the majority foreign to us. We contain more single-celled microbes than human cells, believe it or not.

But we coexist with those microbes. They live in us, and on us, and have done so for a very long time, and we have found ways of coexisting that are beneficial to all. Some microbes help to regulate our digestion; others regulate our immune systems; and so on.

Example: Helicobacter pylori. H. pylori was discovered several decades ago to be the main cause of stomach ulcers. Before this discovery, ulcers were one of those things you just suffered with, like arthritis. After the discovery, a quick course of specific antibiotics cured ulcers double-quick.

Except that it turns out that it’s more complicated than that. H. pylori helps regulate stomach acid when we’re younger; when we’re older, it causes ulcers. This (Pollan speculates) may be on purpose: maybe the body and the bacteria are collaborating to kill us, to move us off the stage so that younger and stronger people can take over.



H. pylori has been largely eradicated now. Is this a good thing? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Pollan also takes on the issue of probiotics. Can we tend our gut flora as if it were a kitchen garden? Perhaps. We already do it with yogurt, and pickles, and sauerkraut, and all kinds of things. But now you can buy foods with “beneficial” microbes, which will colonize your stomach and intestines and make you unbelievably healthy.

Then there are “prebiotics.” These are foods that serve as quick-start fuel for microbial populations.

I tried one of these a few years ago.

Evidently I have a very lively microbial population in my gut. Giving it a little extra food was like giving Hitler the A-bomb.

I will never eat anything labeled “prebiotic” again.

I love my internal microbial population, but I don’t want them to take over completely.

About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to futureworld@cox.net.

2 Responses to Microbes, probiotics, and prebiotics

  1. starproms says:

    Pardon me for laughing, but that was really funny. Sorry Loren, but I know what you mean, I’ve had those experiences… Recently I was stung by a horse fly. Luckily I didn’t die like a poor man in the news here a couple of days ago. The sting was a double one and my arm swelled up alarmingly. In the end I had to go to the doctor to get some help and he prescribed some penicillin. I took it, knowing it would upset my stomach a little bit. To compensate I ate a yoghurt every day. That did the trick. My arm is better, the penicillin is gone and my stomach is back to normal.

    • Yogurt is wonderful and very mild. I don’t like the regular stuff, but I love frozen yogurt; it’s as good as ice cream, as far as I’m concerned. And if it’s good for me, so much the better.

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