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Make love not war with your body

Good bacteria will go a lot further in your fight for good health than shock and awe

The health benefits of yogurt have been touted for years, but here’s a new one. Scientists have recently come out strong against antibacterial soaps (again). This time they’re saying that the bacteria many people are trying to kill with bacterial-warfare soaps are mostly hanging out in the tiny crevices of our hangnails, cuticles and what-nots – places where the soap never reaches unless we scrub like crazy with a good little surgical brush.

What we really should be doing for good health is thinking probiotic –instead of waging war on germs, filling them with shock and awe, we should be encouraging the growth of beneficial bacteria on our hands and other bodily parts. And what better way to do that, say same scientists, than by washing our hands in yogurt, naturellement .

I’m looking at our carton of organic yogurt right now thinking, gee, that’s kind of an expensive and gooey way to keep clean. Besides, all things in, I’d really rather use yogurt for my inner probiotic well-being and hope that takes care of the outer stuff too.

People can be wildly fanatical about their yogurt when it comes to good health, and for good reason. But, a word of caution, one woman’s lifeline can be another’s gastro-intestinal disaster.

A good friend and former long-time Whistlerite just moved back to England. She swore by her natural yogurt she’d been keeping alive for years like a pet – taking a tablespoon of the old batch, mixing it into a quart of milk and leaving it a day or two at room temperature.

A friend of a friend had brought it back from some remote region in Japan, swearing it was the source of many long lives and much good health. Jan swore by it, too, and even had friends deliver a jar of the living culture to England after she had forgotten her pet yogurt back here. (I’d even tried drying a bit of the stuff and sending it through the mail. Risky business, sending white powder. Can you imagine the headlines if the envelope had been opened and analyzed? Yogurt scare sweeps Hampshire!)

But Jan’s yogurt miracle turned my gastro system into a natural gas pipeline.

My husband and I still argue about which type to have on hand. He grew up on a traditional, spontaneously fermented yogurt his Polish mother made in their Montreal kitchen, warming the milk at room temperature just overnight and serving it within 24 hours so the milk barely thickened and the flavour was tart but fresher than most of us are used to in North America. (The word "yogurt" actually comes from a Turkish word for milk that’s been fermented into a tart, semi-solid mass; the root word, in fact means "thick".)

Talk about health benefits – you can imagine how important yogurt was in ancient times before refrigeration. People in Europe, North Africa, Asia and India all had their various forms and applications, using it in dressings, dips, main courses, soups, sweet treats, and one of the all-time favourite drinkable forms – lassies.

It stayed in the realm of the exotic in Euro-cultures until the early 1900s when, like so many other instances of science backing up anecdotal info, a Nobel-prize winning immunologist, Ilya Metchnikov, linked the longevity of certain people in Bulgaria, France, Russia, and the U.S. to their consumption of yogurt.

The theory, in all its delicious simplicity, is that the bacteria in yogurt does a lot more for us than pre-digest the lactose, itself a small but significant health blessing for lactose-intolerant people like me.

If I can segue here for a moment, you are not born lactose-intolerant. Finally I’ve found a reasonable explanation for this phenomenon, since I’m lactose-intolerant now but I drank gallons of milk a day before I travelled in Asia a couple of years – well, not quite gallons, but you know what I mean if you’re a milk lover. There, dairy products are pretty scarce, and this is what happens when you don’t drink milk: you can’t.

If you don’t expose your system to dairy products, your body literally stops producing the enzyme to digest the lactose, and so you become lactose-intolerant. That means spending a small fortune on Lactaid to have your ice cream, flan and other milk-based goodies and eat them too. Except yogurt, of course, in which the lactose has been digested by the bacteria.

But back to Mr. Metchnikov’s theory: the bottom line is that the lactic acid bacteria in fermented milk eliminate toxic microbes in our digestive systems that otherwise shorten our lives. Just what those ancient Bulgarians and Japanese had been telling people for years. (Hey, give me another spoonful of that stuff.)

I’ve been reading Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking (again) and more recent research even shows that certain lactic acid bacteria, namely Bifidobacteria, are fostered by breast milk and help colonize babies’ gastro-intestinal systems. These bacteria help to keep their gastro systems healthy by acidifying it and producing various antibacterial substances. Long live probiotics!

Even certain pickled vegetables – kimchee, anyone? – can add beneficial bacteria to our systems.

But here’s the catch: most industrially produced buttermilk and yogurt contains bacteria that are specialized to grow well in milk but can’t survive inside the human body. But other bacteria found in traditional, spontaneously fermented milks do, and, boy, are they good for you. I won’t list their long-winded names here, but they would be the type of bacteria that are present in my friend’s Japanese yogurt, or the homemade one my husband grew up with as a child.

Certain strains of these bacteria adhere and shield the intestinal wall, secrete anti-bacterial compounds and boost the body’s immune response to some microbes, and help you fight against cholesterol production. They even help reduce the production of potential carcinogens in your system. What are you waiting for? Hand me a carton of yogurt!

Given all the positive evidence, some manufacturers are now adding more "probiotic" bacteria to their products and note as much on the label. Look for lactobacilli or bifidobacteria (just remember "by Fido bacteria"). Some keep it simple and indicate it as "live" bacteria. And if you really want to get healthy, what the heck, buy a few containers and wash your hands in it.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who eats yogurt every day.