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Ilya Metchnikoff’s Theory of Autointoxication

Ilya Metchnikoff was born on May 16, 1845, near Kharkoff in the Ukraine, Russia. In 1867, at age 22, he joined the faculty at the University of St. Petersburg. In 1883 (age 38), he worked in a laboratory in Messina and discovered phagocytosis: how white blood cells eat bacteria to prevent them from growing and multiplying in your body. In 1908, he won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for this discovery. In 1888, Metchnikoff moved to the Pasteur Institute in Paris, and in 1904, he became the deputy director of that institution and stayed there for the rest of his life. In 1916, he died at age 71 of heart failure in Paris.

Yogurt to Prolong Life?
As Metchnikoff aged, he set out to find out how he could prolong his own 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 the intestinal tracts of humans are too alkaline. He believed that these lactic acid-producing bacteria in yogurt acidify the intestines and suppress the growth of bacteria that break down protein to cause aging. He thought that lactic-acid producing bacteria would prolong life in humans. He started the concept of probiotics: swallowing certain good bacteria to prolong life and preserve health.

The Theory of Autointoxication
His theory was 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. Because of this auto-intoxication theory, many healthy people even today take laxatives to flush their colons. Others take enemas regularly because they think that it will clean out their colons and help to prolong life. No scientific evidence supports any of this. No reasonable doctor today recommends that healthy people regularly use laxatives or enemas.

Metchnikoff Had Many Followers
While you may find these treatments funny, they were very popular in Metchnikoff’s day. Enemas were a major part of John Harvey Kellogg’s program at his sanitorium in Battle Creek, Michigan, where he treated the Roosevelts, Fords, Chryslers, Rockefellers and hundreds of other prominent people in the early 20th century. Some surgeons even killed healthy patients by removing their colons "to prolong life". Metchnikoff’s studies inspired Japanese scientist Minoru Shirota’s studies on the relationship between certain bacteria and intestinal health, which led to the marketing of Kefir and other fermented milk drinks.

Prebiotics and Probiotics
Prebiotics are non-digestible food ingredients, usually carbohydrates (fiber), that travel to the colon and stimulate the growth of healthful bacteria in the intestines. Probiotics are good bacteria found in foods, which can grow in the intestines to improve health and perhaps prolong life.

Soluble fiber, found in many plant foods, grows good bacteria in your intestines. Soluble fiber cannot be absorbed in your upper intestines, but your colon is full of good bacteria that break down soluble fiber to form chemicals such as short chain fatty acids that are absorbed through your colon into your bloodstream and travel to your liver where they block the liver from making cholesterol and help to prevent heart attacks. These short chain fatty acids also reduce inflammation, so they help to control the bloody diarrhea and ulcers caused by Crohn’s disease. They may reduce swelling and pain of conditions such as arthritis, diabetes or psoriasis, and may even improve your immunity to help you to kill germs. Soluble fiber is found in legumes (beans, lentils, peas and peanuts), whole grains such as oatmeal and barley, and many fruits and vegetables.

If You Have Chronic Diarrhea, Constipation, or Gas
People who have gas, bloating, diarrhea, cramps or constipation may have a treatable diseases; check with your physician. You could have an allergy to gluten in wheat, rye and barley which can be cured just by avoiding these grains. Even if your doctor cannot find a cause for your symptoms, you may benefit from a diet that increases the growth of good bacteria: lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, seeds and nuts.

If you suffer from constipation, check with your doctor to see if you have thyroid disease, an intestinal obstruction or something else that may cause it. If you have no disease, the odds are overwhelming that you can be cured by exercising, avoiding white flour and bakery products, eating a high-fiber diet that includes beans and whole grains, and drinking plenty of fluids.

Some people suffer explosive bloody diarrhea from an infection with a bacteria called C. difficile. These people can often be cured by taking an antibiotic to kill that germ, or by taking healthful bacteria taken from a healthy person’s intestines. However, this should be done only under the expert care of a doctor trained to do it.

The Future of Good Intestinal Bacteria
Today, most doctors recommend that you get your prebiotics and probiotics from the foods in a healthful diet, not from prescription drugs or over-the-counter supplements. However, the current research on the influence of intestinal bacteria on obesity and diabetes (see my report above) may lead to future changes in our recommendations. Then Metchnikoff will be hailed as a prophet.

June 30th, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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