Monthly Archives: November 2011

Is Anybody Home?

OR… The Ballad of H. pylori.

The guy who invented the frontal lobotomy got a Nobel Prize for figuring out a quick and inexpensive way of making people with profound mental illness much easier to handle.  In retrospect it doesn’t appear to have been such a good idea.  Today we drug people who are hard to handle into oblivion.  It’s kind of a variation on the same theme but nowhere near as messy.  Back in 2005 two researchers from Australia got the Nobel Prize for figuring out that the bacteria H. pylori caused stomach ulcers and that antibiotics would cure the whole problem.  Unfortunately, as with the frontal lobotomy, it appears that the Nobel committee may just have hit the Jackpot once again.

Research has recently shown that the stomach behaves differently after a course of antibiotics eradicates resident H. pylori.  For one, after a meal, levels of ghrelin, a hunger hormone secreted in the stomach, are supposed to fall. But in subjects without H. pylori, the amount of ghrelin in the bloodstream held steady, in essence telling the brain to keep eating.  Experimental animals given antibiotics in the same dosage as american children with “ear infections” had marked increases in body fat even though their diets remained the same. (Indeed, farmers have long given antibiotics to livestock to promote weight gain without increasing caloric intake.)  Researchers at New York University have found an inverse correlation between H. pylori infection and childhood-onset asthma, hay fever and skin allergies.  Researchers in Switzerland and Germany have reported that mice given H. pylori actually are protected against asthma.

“If some twisted genius vaporized all 10 trillion cells in your body — along with the hair, the fingernails, and other tissue they create — it would not leave empty space behind. A body-shaped cloud made of bacteria, viruses, and other former stowaways would hover briefly in the air. The cloud would outline your skin, delineate your lungs, trace your digestive tract. You might be gone for good, but your shadow biosphere would remain.” 

The 100 Trillion micro-organisms “Left Behind” are anything but our enemies.  Without them we could not live and, we are learning, tampering with their balance in the cavalier fashion most people are accustom to may prove to be the root cause of some of the most deadly and expensive health problems faced by our modern society.  Asthma kills more than a quarter million people every year.  Obesity, especially in children, and the myriad of other health problems obesity directly causes contribute in a big way to the unsustainable cost of our so called “modern” health care system.  Mental problems, digestive problems, cardiovascular problems, cancer….. “We’re just beginning to learn the effects our micro-biome has on us, but it’s clear that they can be profound. Certain species help digest food and synthesize vitamins; others guide the immune system.”

    George Washington died of a throat abscess.  His physicians, the finest medical minds of the day, treated him with advanced bloodletting techniques in the hope that the evil humors causing the disease could be purged from his body.   The ironic thing is this…. If  instead of using their scalpels to open blood vessels in his  arm, to let out the bad humors, they had instead asked George to “open wide” and, with the same implement, punctured the abscess in the back of his throat the Father of our Country might just have recovered and gone on to complete the construction of his garden at Mount Vernon.  George was a hell of a gardener in case you didn’t know.

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