Starts off being about bacteria and turns into a crazy hippie rant directed at western medicine and The New Yorker

Just read the New Yorker about bacteria. It confirmed my lifelong nonchalance about germs as basically being an appropriate stance, the disgust of my husband notwithstanding. I’m just not that stressed out about germs. I’m not one of these people using a toilet seat cover. To paraphrase a comedian I heard recently: “I have a toilet seat cover already. It’s called MY SKIN.” I am not super diligent about washing my hands. I just don’t care that much. All these people frantically carrying around hand sanitizer. I have these sort of dimly-realized “beliefs” about germs and about how being exposed to lots of germs makes you “tough.” Oh it’s stupid because it’s not empirical, huh? Well guess what!!!

Here’s this article all about how humans are supposed to have 100,000 different kinds of microbes in their guts, but that since the advent of antibiotics, we’re down to like 40,000 or something crazy like that, and fewer all the time. I remember in the early days of my Portland-style feminism when I was reading a lot of punk rock feminist zines, and it was the first time I heard about how if you’re on antibiotics you should eat a lot of yogurt because the medicine kills all your intestinal flora–the good along with the bad–and you can get a yeast infection. Much like chemotherapy, the treatment eradicates everything it possibly can in the hopes of knocking out the bad stuff along with a ton of the good. And then you recover. Or do you? According to scientists these days, the actual species of humankind has, across the board/world, dramatically fewer bacteria in its gut than it did 100 years ago. In some ways this is good, because some bacteria cause terrible problems/ailments. But in other ways it seems like it might be bad, and that the LACK of bacteria might be causing certain culture-wide problems and ailments. They’re starting to find links between all kinds of illnesses and a lack of certain bacteria. For example, in a trial of 34 people with chronic sinusitis EVERY PERSON was cured by the introduction of some bacteria that was lacking in their bodies. Similar with C. Diff, which Tig Notaro recently famously almost died of, they did a trial in which 100% in one and 80% in another were CURED by, I am not making this up, “fecal transplants.” Putting fecal bacteria from a healthy donor into their intestinal tracts. And these were people who in some cases had been suffering with recurring bouts of C. Diff for YEARS, and just treating each new outbreak with more antibiotics. Terrible life! Cured by getting somebody else’s poop inside your body!


There is also a story about a guy who had a chronic recurring ear infection in just one ear, and he did a million rounds of antibiotics and nothing worked, and finally he came in one day and said “I’m cured, guess how?” and the doctor was like “whatever, how?” and he said he’d taken earwax from his good ear and put it in his bad ear and within 2 days he was cured. The doctor said “you’re nuts” but then 15 years later there he is (the doctor) suddenly being like “oh wait that guy was onto something.”

It turns out that skyrocketing cases of asthma, obesity, allergies, Crohn’s disease, and a ton of other stuff, may be related to the plummeting numbers of bacteria in our microbiomes. Apparently they’ve done studies with rats where they give them low-grade constant doses of antibiotics and it turns out that once their internal bacteria are wiped out, they no longer metabolize food properly, and they get fat. What?!

By early adulthood most humans in developed countries will have had around 20 rounds of antibiotics.

So, now there are doctors working on the human microbiome, trying to map it and figure it out and assess how different diseases and such might be treated via changes in intestinal flora, etc. A vision of the future where every child’s microbiome will be mapped and charted so that weird problems can be treated that way, instead of via invasive medications, etc. etc.

(in addition to feeling validated for my nonchalance about germs, I also now feel so validated for always treating yeast infections with boric acid, never antibiotics! Thanks, punk rock feminist zines of the late 90s! I believe this is also where I first heard of kale)

All this is well and good. BUT THEN, the article suddenly closes with all this abrupt moralist hectoring about how taking probiotics is just bad science, and how people who say their yogurt has lots of good bacteria in it are just “hucksters.” This, after 4 previous pages quoting doctors being all “we have underestimated the importance of bacteria in your body” and “antibiotics wipes out your intestinal flora and can lead to horrible afflictions” and “probably you should take probiotics if you’re on antibiotics” etc. To suddenly take on this feeble chastising tone about people trying to get more bacteria in their guts?

The author makes the point that we don’t know WHICH bacteria are good and we don’t know the effect of various COMBINATIONS of bacteria, so just introducing millions of random acidophilus or whatever into your system isn’t necessarily a good idea. Fair enough, but WTF New Yorker article, you just told me about all these people whose doctors weren’t helping them and weren’t curing them, who were then cured by probiotics or other bacterial therapy! You just told me about that guy sticking the ear wax in his ear, and curing himself after his doctors had basically destroyed his system with crazy medical interventions that didn’t work, and then when he told them what he’d done they didn’t even listen to him! Now I’m supposed to feel like an idiot for thinking I should eat YOGURT sometimes? Fuck you!

This made me think of my recent doctor’s appointment. I don’t know how much I discussed this already, but it was very enlightening, and disturbing. I went to see my doctor for all my aforementioned horrendous hormonal imbalance problems I’ve been ceaselessly bellyachin’ about. For an entire year, being without health insurance, I did my own research and diagnosed myself more-or-less, and treated myself. I read tons and tons of stuff about herbal remedies for various afflictions and about those afflictions, how they correlate, what they stem from, what different herbal remedies are good for which different afflictions, etc. etc. I did a lot of trial and error and finally have settled on this weird herbal blend made by some witch in town, that is a combo of black cohosh, wild yam, st. john’s wort, and a couple other things. The black cohosh and the wild yam in particular I thought would do the trick, and indeed they have done so. I mean, usually with herbal remedies you have no idea if it’s working or not, but in this case it is DRAMATIC. My symptoms are gone. Not just better or maybe-better, but GONE!!! If I fall off the wagon and miss a bunch of these pills, however, they are back in FORCE. So, it’s real, whatever it is, it’s working.

So finally I get to go to the doctor. I tell her my symptoms, we talk at length. She tells me I’m more-or-less right about my diagnosis, and she congratulates me on my self-treatment, saying she thinks it sounds like it’s working and I should keep going with it. Then she told me that normally in a case like mine, what a doctor would prescribe would be…..PROZAC.



She said “black cohosh, I know has been very effective in treating hormonal imbalance.” She said “Wild yam is indeed the primary herb in non-traditional hormone replacement therapy.” She also said, “western medicine just doesn’t know about this stuff, and therefore we can’t prescribe it to people, because there’s no money in it for the drug companies, so nobody pays for doing trials of it.”

PROZAC is the alternative.

So yeah, thanks Mr. New Yorker Doctor Man. I hardly see how a profession that apparently routinely prescribes drastic mood-altering drugs to treat mildly uncomfortable night sweats is supposed to be considered so much more responsible and empirical than some guy telling you to eat yogurt. Jesus Christ.

The moral is that you either have to do months of research and medical trials on your own body, or you have to be prescribed insane shit (Prozac, antibiotics) for something that could be treated another way (night sweats, yeast infections).

I mean, do you just sound like a crazy hippie when you say shit like this? I feel like I am going crazy. I do not feel like one of those caricatures of the nutty hippie who hates western medicine and only owns items made of hemp, but honestly I am pretty upset when I think about this. Imagine you’re just some kid and you’re having weird hormone problems and you go to the doctor, because that’s what you do when you have a physical problem, and the doctor just nonchalantly gives you PROZAC. What in the honest fuck? This bullshit fallacy that whatever is currently being called “science” is automatically free from hucksterism and human error or bias, oh, it really steams me up. “Science” used to treat syphilis by making people drink MERCURY. “Science” used to think the sun went around the earth. “Science” is not a universal mathematical given, it’s something that changes and evolves and doubles back on itself and corrects itself constantly. So it’s not hilarious that people are trying to eat bacteria to be healthier–it’s no less hilarious than any number of supposedly scientific things that in 10, 50, 100 years are going to seem ludicrously barbaric and stupid. I love science; I love medicine; I am glad I did not die of bronchitis when I was 10; obviously. I just think this knee-jerk attitude that anything not currently considered under the rubric of science is “crazy,” is crazy. That I pay $400 a month so I can have my doctor tell me “thank god you did all that googling on your own, because all I would’ve been able to do is give you Prozac.”

So thank you, New Yorker article, but I’ll probably just keep eating yogurt, if the alternative is taking 20 rounds of antibiotics because doctors don’t believe yogurt is beneficial because massive pharmaceutical conglomerates haven’t invested billions of dollars in telling us what we already know, which is that yogurt is fucking good for you.

All this being said, it would be hilarious if I died of black cohosh poisoning or something.

HILARIOUS! Or yogurt poisoning.

Put up another advice post over at Advice. Go see what you think and weigh in! And keep those questions coming!

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7 Responses to Starts off being about bacteria and turns into a crazy hippie rant directed at western medicine and The New Yorker

  1. bocko says:

    OK but here’s the thing about hand-washing…. it protects other people. Just plain hood old hand washing with old-fashioned soap, which merely lifts the germs away from your skin and rinses them down into the oceans, thereby protecting vulnerable people from falling ill by touching the things your filthy hands touch. Be kind!!

    • Yours Truly says:

      well I’m not, like, walking around with dog poop on my hands. Also I am never sick so it’s not like I’m coughing TB germs on my hands and then touching doorknobs!

      the vulnerable of the world will have to make it through without me washing my hands 10 times a day. SORRY VULNERABLES!

      • kerry says:

        Ah, but to that I say you are indeed walking around with poop on your hands, because we are ALL walking around with poop on our hands. And it’s not the animal poop that makes us sick, it’s people poo! For me, one of the best parts of grad school was reading some truly disgusting studies about the amount of fecal contamination on common surfaces. There is one particular study about day care fecal contamination that will make you have nightmares. They put this day-glo stuff in kids’ diapers and set them loose, then used a blacklight to assess fecal transfer–the researchers said the room lit up like a glow-stick from the floor to the walls at about three feet high. Now I am not saying you hang out in daycares, but guess what? Those little fuckers are everywhere, and their gross parents with poopy hands are too, touching your stuff!

        Remember the horrible giardia story? To that I say, you ate someone’s poop, my friend. Also, you are never sick (not with TB perhaps) but you are definitely shedding lots of lovely bacteria and viruses, and though you may not have symptoms others might.

        Of course, there are places you are more likely to get seriously sick if you don’t wash your hands. For instance, I wash the FUCK out of my hands whenever I am in contact with kids, or travel to places where sanitation is not as great as it is in the US, or come within 50 miles of New York City.

        Anyway, in ‘the biz’ we teach that there are critical times for handwashing to prevent spread of disease: before preparing or eating food, after cleaning a child’s butt, or after cleaning your own butt. Follow that practice, and wash with regular old non-anti-bacterial soap and water, and you are set.


        • Yours Truly says:

          Gross! And, yeah, I basically follow this advice. Wash my hands when involved with poop; before cooking; when in New York.

          that daycare story is so fucked up

  2. kerry says:

    THAT ARTICLE!! I was reading it out loud to my husband last night. “Honey, there are THREE POUNDS of bacteria in/on the human body!!” (“More like seven or eight on me, nyuk nyuk”)

    You know what is really crazy? I work for a nonprofit that provides millions doses of free deworming drugs to kids in developing countries. Now, these worms are bad–they come from eating other people’s poop, they cause anemia, stunting, malnutrition, etc. Not having your stomach and intestines full of worms is without doubt the preferred state of things. HOWEVER. The side effect of all that deworming, or rather the result of our efforts to get all these parasites out of kids, is that we’re going to have a shitload of dudes with asthma and allergies in about ten years’ time. Yes, they are not shitting out worms and anemic and a foot shorter than they should be, BUT they will have massive allergy/sinus/asthma issues because guess what? Low levels of those parasites actually do a good job of hindering your body’s immune response to other environmental irritants!

    Now think about this. These deworming drugs are super cheap, buthow much do allergy and asthma drugs cost? And guess who donates all those deworming drugs to nonprofits like mine??

    OH MY GOD!

    We can’t do anything right.


  3. lindsay says:

    This is exactly why i take my 2 years old (c-section, one course of necessary antibiotics) to some clean dirt in the hills above Oakland and let him roll in for a couple hours then don’t wash his hands or give him a bath for 2 days. He is the child of two parents with chronic allergies and this is all I can offer him.

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