Horrible Helicobacter

My colleague and I seem to write in unison at present, first about blood pressure, now it’s bowel bugs. But this is probably not surprising, sharing the same office for so many years… On the other hand I don’t think that our looks are converging yet.

With the discovery of antibiotics we seem to have declared war on bugs and by eradicating them shouldn’t we have solved the problem? Nothing worse than this awful idea that we are full with creepy creatures and what horrible illnesses they can cause: diarrhoea and vomiting, stomach ulcers and now even heart attacks and strokes. Yes, those abominable creatures have now been shown to clog up your arteries, if you eat lots of L-carnitine, which is in meat or lecithin. The latter one is a derivate of soya and it is also found in eggs. Both chemicals are being transformed to damaging TMAO, precisely because of some nasty bacteria in the bowel. Giving antibiotics shows a significant decrease of TMAO levels in the blood. Vegetarians also have a lot less TMAO because they harbour different bacteria.

Previously, the stomach ulcer-causing bug Helicobacter was under suspicion of causing heart disease, but evidence never materialized. Although there had been episodic descriptions of a bacteria living in the stomach, nobody really wanted to believe it until 30 years ago. We just did not have the fantasy to consider the fact that something might resist the equivalent of the acid of a car battery. Helicobacter escapes by continuously tunnelling under the protecting mucous! Since the discovery, we learned much about this bug, which has been part of our lives since our tails were dangling down from the branches! Apart from chronic inflammation Helicobacter also causes stomach cancer and lymphoma. But we also learned that the eradication or absence worsens symptoms of a hiatus hernia and since antibiotic intervention the rate of oesophageal cancer and Barret’s disease has increased significantly. We also know that lifestyle factors potentiate and then express the symptoms of an otherwise innocent Helicobacter, because all the genetic testing of Helicobacter reveals that there are good guys and bad guys: since mankind has left Africa only certain genetic make-ups, which emerged since, make human illness likely, suggesting that at the time Helicobacter started to live with our ancestors it was no threat to us at all.

What conclusions can we draw? Surely we should not always consider a chemical bludgeon as a first, simple and single solution. Secondly we know that competition works and replacing harmful strains with harmless ones in future could be a possibility to regain our long established balance with bugs, although trying to colonize any bug won’t work if they dislike the encountered environment. Thirdly, that we are responsible for our own wellbeing e.g. TMAO producing bacteria only flourish in a “meaty” environment and the harmful effects of Helicobacter can partly only be provoked by chemical damage of the stomach through alcohol, nicotine, etc.

Our bodies are just not the latest model in the latest car exhibition. We are old-timers. In terms of evolution we probably linger at the quality of a Benz Patent Motor Car of 1886. Finally the TMAO news is a fine example that we only accumulate knowledge in slices without the means to put them together in the right order. A total picture normally is being achieved without spitting out shredded details.

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