A few months ago, I attended an updated talk – to one presented a couple of years ago – by Victoria gastroenterologist Dr Denis Petrunia. For the most part, Petrunia has what seems to me a very enlightened view of the interior life of his patients, in that he is a firm believer in the power of beneficial bacteria upon health.
Coincidentally I was sent a link to this talk on the microbiome and aging, which mentioned one of the books that is a bit of a touchstone for me on the role of antibiotics on health. In Missing Microbes, Martin Blaser explains how medical demolition of H. Pylori – linked to stomach cancer and ulcers – may be causing multiple other problems, as we don’t fully understand the role H. Pylori has played in its coexistence in the human gut for over 5,000 years.
It’s a book I often recommend (including on this blog) as Blaser’s idea stands as a strong example of how a single well-intentioned procedure can have far reaching and potentially catastrophic effects on human health. Or, as I think every scientist and engineer ought to have tattooed on their hearts: Humans just don’t know enough to properly mimic nature.
I also think Blaser’s observations about the over-use of antibiotics on children are incredibly valuable. We know these wipe out beneficial as well as pathological bacteria. So doing this with abandon to youthful microbiomes that are at a particularly vulnerable stage of development is inevitably going to adversely affect those functions that beneficial bacteria perform on our health. These include (but won’t be limited to!) weight control, immunity and mental health. We need to remember how recently we’ve learned about the microbiome, and how much more we are learning about its role in our lives, with every day and research paper being published.
At his talk, Petrunia brought another book to my attention this time: 10% Human: How Your Body’s Microbes Hold the Key to Health and Happiness, by Alanna Collen. Another fascinating read. And it did raise a disturbing issue: that antibiotics from factory farming are finding their way even into organic vegetables, through the use of non-organic manure by organic farmers.
There is a loophole in organic farming in Canada, whereby if you document your failed efforts to find organic manure, you may then use manure from conventionally-reared animals. These may or may not have been factory farmed, or dosed with antibiotics, antifungals or other pharmaceuticals. The farmers I have met go to some lengths to document, from the animal owners, the use of pharmaceuticals (e.g. worming treatments in horses) on the source of the manure.
But according to Collen, animals (who are given anywhere from 50 to 80% of the antibiotics made or imported to Canada, depending on whose numbers you use) excrete in their urine and manure around 75% of these antibiotics. That manure, even after composting, can then produce food plants that contain antibiotics.
Unfortunately, Petrunia used this as an argument not to bother eating organic food. It’s an argument I’ve heard from many in conventional medicine who seem willfully uninformed as to the nature of what goes into conventionally grown foods, and the reasons people choose to buy organic. At least it sounds so to me, who probably knows too much, as I keep updating my course materials for CSNN‘s EcoNutrition class, and spend a lot of my spare time on projects for the certified organic Haliburton Farm.
Here are some reasons I think you should try to keep eating certified organic foods, as much as you can manage:
And as for the antibiotics: this is why we vote and lobby our governments for ever-stricter limits on use. Antibiotic resistance is already one of the key medical problems of our time, and it’s not going to get any better. Developing stronger antibiotics is only postponing, not solving, the problem.
Contact your local, regional and national government reps today!