Beth Jacks Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 27, 2008

Jacks offers annual science column

Biology was not my subject. I’d rather have cleaned urinals in the boys’ locker room than sit through biology class.

Unfortunately, the locker room was not an option – I had to take the courses in high school and again in college, whining all the while. I didn’t absorb much. The subject was too mysterious, too incomprehensible for this English/music major.

So when I picked up the newspaper last night, a startling headline caught my eye. I did a double-take when I read: “Millions of tiny bacteria reside in the crooks of elbows.”

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What? Dr. McKeown didn’t teach me this.

Immediately, I thought: What good is studying biology if we’re not warned about our elbows being contaminated by millions of tiny bacteria in every square centimeter of wrinkled flesh? Really, would you, in your wildest moments, think to spend extra time in the shower scrubbing your inner elbows?

But then I read on, and the good news is that these buggers are not into damage – they are there (in elbows across the globe) to accomplish a beneficial task. They process fats that moisturize, a specialized job for this microbial community. Whew . . . relief. Oiled elbows work better, I’m sure.

Normally, we only hear about bad bacteria, which threaten us every day in hundreds of places like vacuum cleaners, bed sheets, lemon wedges, shower curtains, menus, and grocery cart handles. It’s enough to make us spritz with Clorox every morning.

But what about all this good bacteria?

Attempting to broaden my own scientific understanding (which needs stretching considerably), I decided to do a couple of hours of research on good bacteria. After all, our inner elbow could not possibly be the only place our bodies harbor beneficial creatures.

Whoa! I really hit the Good Bacteria Info Jackpot. Turns out this is currently a very popular topic, and the World Wide Web is busting with data on the subject. Boy, was I in luck.

I learned that there are over 400 species of good bacteria in the human digestive tract alone – and there are gazillions of them! We are crawling with bacteria. I don’t know about you, but that gives me the willies, although it’s reassuring to read that the good bacs help protect us against the bad bacs.

I learned good bacteria can break down certain foods (e.g. plant starches) that we can’t digest on our own. (Similarly, cows are able to digest cellulose because of good bacteria in their tummies. Good for them!)

And listen to this. Good bacteria promote the storage of energy as fat, leading scientists to believe that our tendency to weigh little or lots may be partially determined by the microbes living in our gut.

But wait – there’s more.

Good bacteria synthesize vitamin K and folic acid, and researchers think they may influence drug metabolism and rid us of damaged cells that could encourage cancer. There’s more, but that’s enough to convince me I’m quite happy to play host to these hard-working critters. So how do we encourage and cultivate helpful bacteria?

At we’re advised to “start by eating living, whole organic food grown in live soil, eating more high quality fermented foods, and filtering water so we are not drinking chlorine. [Also], take a quality probiotic supplement daily in order to repopulate the gut quickly with good bacteria…”

 I don’t know what a probiotic supplement is – sounds like bio-tech babble to me – and perhaps is trying to sell something (NO!), but I do know that trying to limit antibiotics (which kill good bacteria along with the bad) and regularly eating a delicious low fat yogurt with live cultures is an easy place to start.

And that’s my science column for 2008. I feel so smart. Dr. McKeown would be proud.