Although your digestive system may seem to be simply a tube, with the mouth as its entrance the anus as its exit, the wide variety of jobs that it has says more about how complex it really is and why the good bacteria that live there are so important. The main tasks of the digestive system, of course, are to break down bulk food, absorb nutrients, and eliminate waste. It also plays a major role in the immune system. The lining of the small intestine, in fact, houses an astonishing 70% of the immune-producing cells in your body. This is right where probiotics come in handy.
Are You Really What You Eat?
No. It would be more accurate to say that you are what you absorb. Here is how things are supposed to work. Imagine taking a bite out of something nutritious and delicious. Enzymes in your mouth go to work immediately, with the help of oral bacteria, to get the digestive process going before you even swallow. After swallowing, you have additional enzymes in your stomach that continue the process, again aided by friendly bacteria. Still more bacteria and enzymes get to work on this nutritious little bit of food after it moves out of the stomach and into the small intestine. If everything has gone well to this point, the nutrients that were once in your morsel will now begin to pass through your intestinal lining and on to wherever your body needs them.
Unfortunately, a huge glitch often fouls up this ideal scenario – chronic intestinal deterioration. Some of it comes naturally with age. Much of it comes from an imbalance in your community of intestinal bacteria, which is caused by toxins that you ingest. Nutritionists estimate that the rate that people absorb nutrients when the digestive tract is healthy decreases by an average of 1% to 2% per year after the age of 25. Toxins that harm our friendly bacteria can accelerate this rate to as much as 5% per year. Deterioration that is this fast leads to a dysfunctional system that is in urgent need of repair.
The Many Consequences of Poor Nutrient Absorption
What kinds of problems can you have when you don’t actually absorb the nutrients that you think you are getting from your food? In a nutshell, anything can go wrong. Cancer, cardiovascular disease, allergies, ulcers, anxiety, bad breath, osteoporosis, arthritis, skin problems, yeast infections (candida overgrowth), poor sleep, and even neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and autism all have roots in and are made worse by poor nutrient absorption. This is a short list. The American Medical Association estimates that at least 85% of all chronic diseases are caused by poor nutrition. Enhancing the absorption of nutrients by a healthy and balanced intestinal microflora, therefore, is crucial for the nutrient absorption that you need for good health.
Fortunately, in spite of almost constant abuse, your normal digestive bacteria can be supported by ingesting probiotics, which are friendly bacteria that replenish your normal gut microbes. When you consume good probiotics that help you maintain a well-tuned digestive system, you give yourself a solid foundation for good health.
Benefits of Consuming Good Bacteria
How you feel, good or bad, depends on what you eat. So why would you eat bacteria? Look at it this way: As stated above, your digestive system houses bacteria from top to bottom, starting in your mouth and going all the way out the other end. Some of them are good for your health and some are bad. Doesn’t it make sense that having more of the good ones will help you be healthier and feel better? Of course it does, and that’s not all. Modern scientific research on the effects of good bacteria in your digestive system now shows that they are able to prevent, alleviate, and even cure a long list of diseases, including arthritis, food allergies, autism, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, vaginal infections, eczema, chronic inflammatory disorders, stomach ulcers, and many more – more than 100 medical conditions overall.
Science continues to discover the health benefits of good bacteria because so many medical conditions are now linked to the poor health of our normal intestinal bacteria. Indeed, we now know that friendly bacteria – our “good bugs” – are not merely good for your health, they are absolutely required for it. Indeed, your bacteria are constantly doing battle on your behalf against infectious bacteria and other, not-so-friendly microbes. You can imagine it as a war zone, where you depend on a strong and vigorous army of microscopic soldiers to keep you healthy. Scientific research is very clear that, without this army, you would probably be chronically sick and not live as long and as well as you could by harboring a healthy population of friendly intestinal bacteria.
Your Gut Feelings
Normally your gastrointestinal system – that is, your GI tract or “gut” – harbors billions of living microorganisms. Fortunately, most of these microbes are good for you. Less than 1% of all known types of microbes are harmful. Yet they can multiply into overwhelming numbers, destroy the friendly ones, take over your body, and cause anything from mild distress to virulent disease and death.
When you eat the wrong kinds of foods, are exposed to harmful toxins or other dangerous environmental conditions, or otherwise damage the microecology of your gut, you endanger the balance of good bacteria that you depend on for good health. Imbalanced or depleted populations of these bacteria can create a displeasing sensation, a gut feeling that something isn’t right. Your gut feelings are therefore a constant reminder that your GI tract is or is not working synergistically with your friendly bacteria in digesting your food and absorbing nutrients you need from it.
Probiotics: The Start of Something Good
How long have people been benefiting from probiotics? Bacteria in people’s diets have been used for thousands of years, so the answer to this question begins with finding out how people have used them in the past. According to Persian history, one example is Abraham in the Old Testament, who lived a long and healthy life by drinking fermented milk. Another example comes from the1500s, when King Francis I of France was said to have been cured of an illness after eating yogurt. The best current examples of the benefits of probiotics are from people in certain parts of the world who regularly live to be more than 100 years old and are far healthier than most of us. In a nutshell, they eat fermented food, such as yogurt, that contains lots of live, friendly bacteria. Of course, the notion that dietary bacteria, the probiotics themselves, explain the health benefits of these examples was unknown until the 20th century.
Linking Bacteria to Good Health
The idea of linking probiotics and health came from Dr. Elie Metchnikoff in the early 1900s. During a trip through Eastern Europe, Metchnikoff found that many Bulgarians were more than 100 years old and still in good health. By studying these people and their lifestyle, he determined that the live cultures of bacteria in their yogurt were a key factor in their health and longevity. Metchnikoff experimented on himself to verify this deduction. The result was that he experienced improved health and well-being with regular consumption of sour milk. He is quoted as saying, ” When people have learnt how to cultivate a suitable flora in the intestines of children as soon as they are weaned from the breast, the normal life may extend do twice my 70 years.” Specifically, Dr. Metchnikoff believed that lactic-acid producing bacteria could fight off disease-causing microbes, thus preventing illness and disease that shorten people’s lives.
As noted by Dr. Metchnikoff, the most common place to find probiotic bacteria is yogurt and sour milk. In fact, you may be eating probiotics already – just look at your yogurt container for the words, “live cultures,” and you will discover that every spoonful contains living bacteria. Yogurt is a food source for certain kinds of probiotic bacteria. Whether your yogurt is actually a health food, however, depends on the kinds of bacteria it contains, how many you get in a serving, and the additives that your particular brand has in it besides cultured milk. Most products that you will find in a typical supermarket contain sugar or artificial sweetners and other additives that are great entertainment for your taste buds and not necessarily good for your health.
Also keep in mind that milk in the early 1900s was not pasteurized as it is today. Pasteurization easily kills probiotic bacteria, which have to be reintroduced into dairy products to make yogurt. Furthermore, certain kinds of undesirable microbes are not destroyed by pasteurization, which means that when pasteurized milk goes sour it is not good for your health like non-pasteurized sour milk used to be.
Because modern dairy products are so highly processed by pasteurization and the addition of sweeteners, dyes, flavorings and preservatives, they are no longer a good source of the bacteria that you need for replenishing your own intestinal microflora. That’s the main reason why probiotic supplements, in the form of capsules or powder, have become so important for your overall health. Indeed, it is now possible for you to take probiotic supplements to harness the same old-fashioned simple and powerful strategy for a longer and better life that people used to get from eating naturally cultured dairy products.
Choosing the Right Probiotic for You
Scientific research on probiotics is continually adding new and better information to our knowledge base. The best companies pay attention to these changes and continually upgrade their products to be as good as they can be for your health. Generally this is difficult to find out for the lay person. In choosing a product for your own use, therefore, there are only a few things that you can find out easily for judging its quality. These are:
Potency: The potency of a probiotic is measured in colony forming units (CFU), which indicates the number of live bacterial cells. The usual measurements of supplements, by milligrams or weight, are not applicable for bacteria. The number of live cells is the important number to know. Typically, products will range as low as 1-2 billion CFU, commonly up to 15 billion.
Dosage: There is no generally accepted optimum recommended dosage, although many probiotics experts suggest a maintenance level of 8 to 30 billion cells daily. In checking the label on a probiotic supplement, you will find good products with dosages in this range and you will find products that have a fraction of this number. Keep in mind that probiotics are regarded as safe by the World Health Organization and by leading researchers, because the higher daily amounts are not associated with any toxicity..
Sensitivity to Temperature: Until just a few years ago, all good probiotic products had to be refrigerated to maintain their potency. However, Dr. J.J. de Pablo at the University of Wisconsin has discovered a method for cold-processing bacteria and coating each cell with a protective layer that helps them resist heat. Probiotic products that are made by using this technology can be safely stored for up to two years at room temperature, and they will say something such as, “No Refrigeration Necessary,” on the label. This indicates a product that contains temperature-stabile bacteria, meaning that it is more convenient to use than one that has to be stored in your refrigerator. Probiotics that are not processed to resist heat must still be refrigerated to prevent the bacteria from dying.
How Many Kinds of Bacteria?: Products containing a diversity of bacterial strains or different species would seem to be the most sensible for maintaining the health of a diverse population of intestinal bacteria, and scientific research backs up this suggestion. A review of the scientific research on this topic, published in the International Journal of Food Microbiology in 2004, cites studies whereby probiotics containing multiple species were superior for reducing antibiotic-associated diarrhea in children. Based on their survey of all of the published research on this topic, the authors of this review encourage the use of multi-strain and multi-species probiotics.
What this means for you is that a greater diversity of strains offers a wider array of health benefits. Probiotic products are simple to evaluate for how many kinds of bacteria they contain, since each kind should be listed by name on the product label. Most products have one or a few. You will find that some products have as few as 1 to 3 strains, whereas the best ones have more than 10 different kinds, and even as many as 16. The main point is that more strains are better.
Acid and Bile Resistance: Probiotics must pass through the acid and bile of the stomach and reach the small intestine unharmed to be effective. Different products may accomplish this by sealing the capsule with an enteric coating that is supposed to slowly dissolve in the stomach, releasing the contents at just the right time for entering the small intestine. Be aware, however, that some enteric coatings are applied with heat that can destroy bacteria, and the some ingredients of enteric coatings are not acceptable to people who want an all-natural product.
Other products use strains that have been developed in the laboratory to be naturally resistant to the harsh environment of the stomach. This strategy mimics nature, since the bacteria that originally colonized our intestines had to already be strong enough to get through the stomach.
Probiotics in Foods
There may be some great foods that offer sufficient benefits from probiotics, although most commercial products are severely lacking. Ignore the marketing hype about yogurt and other probiotic-containing foods. Most of them have too small a dose and too few different kinds of friendly bacteria to do you any good. Worse yet, they often come packaged with sugar or other additives that undermine the probiotics in the first place.
Overall, nothing in a food product can measure up to a good supplement. Fortunately, most nutrition stores and online suppliers offer an abundance of good choices.
All the best in natural health,