I love stories about quacks who become prophets. One hundred years ago, Ilya Metchnikoff won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of how your body uses white blood cells to fend off infections. As he grew older, he set out to find out how he could prolong his life. He noticed that people who lived in the mountains of Hungary appeared to live to a very old age. He knew that they ate yogurt every day and that yogurt is loaded with lactobacilli, bacteria that can grow in your intestinal tract. He felt that these good bacteria displaced bad bacteria that normally live in your intestines and secrete toxins that shorten your life.
His theory of autointoxication is that food that is not absorbed in the upper intestinal tract passes to your colon, where bacteria ferment it to form poisons that are absorbed into your bloodstream to shorten your life and even cause cancer. Doctors laughed at Metchnikoff then and most continue to laugh at the autointoxication theory today, but ninety year after the death of Ilya Metchnikoff, studies started to turn him from a quack to a prophet. More than 500 different types of bacteria grow naturally in your intestines. Most are harmless and some are necessary for normal intestinal function. Live Lactobacillus solution (LGG) cured children with acute diarrhea caused by rotavirus (1) prevented diarrhea in undernourished Peruvian children (2), in sick children hospitalized for diseases other than diarrhea (3) and when given with antibiotics that cause diarrhea (4). Lactobacillus also prevented eczema caused by milk allergy (5).
The authors postulate that the lactobacillus healed the intestines so it would not absorb milk proteins that cause the skin rash. Feeding people nondigestible foods, such as fructo-oligosaccharide, from human breast milk causes lactobacillus to grow in the intestines. Since people have eaten yogurt for centuries without suffering significant side effects, good bacteria are probably safe, but we need research to tell us the dose and type of bacteria to prevent and treat disease. Studies are being done right now to see if good bacteria can help treat ulcers in the intestines and colon (Crohn's and ulcerative colitis), help lower high cholesterol and even prevent colon cancer.
1) Lancet, 1994;344:1046-1049
2) J Pediatr. 1999;134:15-20.
3) J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2000;30:54-60.
4) J. Pedeatr. 1999;135:564-568.
5) J Allergy Clin Immunol. 1997;99:179-185.
6) E Ernst. Editorial: Colonic irrigation and the theory of autointoxication: A triumph of ignorance over science. Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology 24: 4 (JUN 1997):196-198. Some followers of the autointoxication theory recommended enemas to get rid of the unabsorbed food. In the 1920s, enemas were part of John Harvey Kellogg's treatments at the Sanitorium in Battle Creek, Michigan and he treated the Roosevelts, Fords, Chryslers, Rockafellers and other prominent people of the early 20th century. Articles published in prestigious medical journals continue to discredit enemas to treat autointoxication.
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