Probiotics – They are a Lifesaver!
Probiotics are live bacteria that are vital for our bowels to function properly. Pro means“for” and biotic means “living”, and as their name tells us, probiotics are all about nurturing life. These good bacteria occur naturally in our guts. But we have to replenish them all the time in the form of food (e.g. fermented food) or as a dietary supplement.
Probiotics are essential for a healthy immune system (80 % of our immune system is in our bowels). They are also needed to digest food, to absorb nutrients, to synthesize and absorb essential vitamins like the B vitamins and vitamin K and to keep yeast like candida and the bad bacteria under control.
You might not think about your gut very often, but did you know that the bacteria in your bowels outnumber the cells that form your body by a factor of 10 to one? Your intestinal tract is lined with 100 trillion bacteria, weighting about 3 – 4 kg. Bacteria are normal inhabitants of the human body, including the gastrointestinal tract, where more than 400 bacterial species are found (reviewed by Tannock, 1999).
This extremely complex living system aggressively protects your body from outside offenders every day.
The health of this gut flora has a critical effect on your immune system, which is your body’s natural defence system that keeps you healthy. In other words, the health of your body is largely tied into the health of your gut and it’s hard to for one to be healthy if the other is not.
The opposite of probiotics is antibiotics, meaning “against living”. Unfortunately antibiotics are not selective about which bacteria they kill in our bodies. They don’t just kill the bad guys but also the good bacteria that we actually need, like the ones in our bowels. There is a place for antibiotics and sometimes we do need to take them, but it’s crucial to offset the damage they do to your gut flora by taking probiotics at the same time, and to continue after you’ve finished your course of antibiotics to help your body rebuild its healthy bacteria, which are essential to your every day health.
It’s not just antibiotics that affect the health of your natural bacterial flora. They are also affected by stress, chlorinated drinking water, dietary sugar, preservatives and other chemicals in processed food, i.e additives, flavours etc. An overload of these factors will lead to an imbalance between your good and bad bacteria and over time the imbalance can lead to illness.
Fortunately you can positively influence the composition of the bacteria in your gut by optimizing your diet and including naturally fermented foods such as fermented dairy and vegetables, and/or supplementing with a high-quality probiotic supplement. You can read more about this in a report published in the October 2003 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Optimizing your gut flora and that of your children should be started very early in life. Some babies born today don’t get a natural healthy infusion of beneficial gut bacteria at birth if they are born with a Caesarean section. The earlier this can be corrected, the healthier your child will be. Breast feeding is best if at all possible. Bottle feeding and antibiotics can exact a heavy toll on your child’s intestinal health.
Do you need to take a Probiotic supplement?
Unfortunately there is no simple answer to this – it depends a lot on your lifestyle and diet. If you have stress in your life and a diet full of sugar, grains and processed foods then the answer is yes, it would be great for you on a regular basis. But in my opinion nearly everyone will get some benefit from taking a probiotic supplement occasionally. It is helpful for immunity, health and well-being.
A good source of probiotics comes from naturally fermented foods. (Here is a link to Carol Barringer’s video about fermented food.) Which should be your first choice. Here and here is more info on fermented foods. But if you decide to add a supplement, you should look for a high potency and high quality one like the probiotics from Metagenics. Unfortunately not every supplement on the market is of equal quality – some are inaccurate in their claims as to contents or results.
Probiotics are especially helpful to carry when you are travelling to treat any infectious diarrhea you may pick up. And if you are taking an antibiotic then it is very important to introduce new beneficial bacteria into your gut through fermented foods and probiotics.
Probiotics can be helpful for many illnesses and conditions. Gastrointestinal infections such as IBS and Crohn’s disease, certain bowel disorders, allergies, uro-genital infections and more all respond well to probiotic supplements. As this research paper by the World Health Organiztion suggests, the use of probiotics to prevent and treat these types of disorders could be more widely considered by the medical community.
Be well and stay well!