Get the inside skinny on intestinal health

You have probably already discovered, just by watching television, that you are not alone in the universe. Although that probably depends on which channels you watch. I don’t think they have commercials for probiotics on “Jersey Shore.” Anyway, most Americans are now aware that they have bacteria living in their intestines, and in their nasal passageways and on their skin. Seriously, we are a regular social affair.

What were once arcane, distasteful conversational subjects like bloating, flatulence and irregularity (in alphabetical order, since there seems to be disagreement about which is the worst affliction) are now routinely discussed by a perky woman on television encouraging us to have healthy colons. To do this, of course, one should invite three or four good bacteria into our colons to live there. She knows exactly what you need, and for just a nominal fee.

What is she talking about? I should be charging the bacteria rent. They get a share of my Big Mac and a warm, safe place to live. They can have parties whenever they want, and I have very little control over their activities. See? It’s just like being a landlord! Besides, how can two or three kinds of bacteria make much difference when the neighborhood is already shot?

So, I wash my hands to be sure that I don’t ingest any bacteria, but then I take pills to make sure I get bacteria. Couldn’t I just skip a few hand washings and accomplish the same thing for free? Think of the time I’d save. Like renters, apparently they don’t stay around and I have to keep up a steady supply of immigrants to keep the colon healthy. I guess the new ones are needed to do the jobs that the resident bacteria just won’t do.

The bacteria in our intestines are supposed to be a good thing. They help us, in some magical way digest our food, and keep us from having bloating, flatulence and irregularity. Have you noticed that these are almost as dreaded in America as a nervous breakdown?

I admit certain probiotics have been shown to have a protective effect against Cholera, which is what most people in the world are frightened of. That’s because Cholera can kill you in less than a day, and it isn’t a pretty, or comfortable, death either. It spreads like wildfire in contaminated water. If you take your probiotics, maybe you’ll never get it. Of course, you probably won’t get it anyway living in the United States because we have sewage and water treatment plants for most of us. Most of the world doesn’t.

I wonder why it is now socially acceptable to have bacteria in your colon, but it is still not acceptable to have nematodes or, even worse, a tapeworm. Admittedly some nematodes suck blood and are bad for you, but so are some bacteria.

On the other hand, most tapeworms are relatively benign. They have no mouths so they don’t bite. They don’t suck blood. They just lie there in the colon and absorb nutrients. For a person low in nutrients that might be bad, but most Americans seem to have a few more nutrients than they need and can easily share. Simple greed, I guess.

Tapeworms are basically immortal. They grow from the front end, called the neck, and this region seems to grow forever. I have often thought that the neck would be a good research area for exploring cancer, which has the same immortal characteristic. Because of this, and the way tapeworms attach to the wall of the intestine, it is extremely difficult to get rid of them. The treatment often involves expensive, time-consuming and repeated treatments.

It sort of seems like it might be easier to give tapeworms names and make them pets. You’d always have someone to talk to when you’re lonely. I mean, if probiotics are good for you, why not at least have more permanent long-term renters?

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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