The Probiotic Miracle
Healthy Digestion For Life
By David J. Blyweiss, M.D.
It may come as a surprise, but not all bacteria are bad for you. It's common to hear news reports about harmful bacteria (pathogens) these days, and most of us are familiar with some of their names—Listeria, Botulinum and various strains of Salmonella, for instance. But there are other types of bacteria that won't hurt you. In fact, they are essential to good health. These beneficial bacteria are known as probiotics.
The definition of a probiotic has changed over time, but these days, the generally accepted definition is the one issued by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO). Probiotics are "live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a beneficial health effect on the host."
These friendly bacteria naturally reside in our gut, where they ensure proper digestion and fortify our immune system. However, without the right type of bacterial support, this system becomes less efficient as we age. A poor diet, stress and many prescription and over-the-counter drugs— especially antacids or proton pump inhibitors—contribute to a bacterial imbalance, sluggish digestion and other health problems.
Probiotics are just beginning to catch on in the U.S., but they've been a big deal in Europe and Asia for years. Considering that people of other nations tend to turn to foods and natural remedies for good health, while Americans rely far more heavily on pills and medications, this is not surprising. In fact, according to the International Probiotics Association, Japanese grocery store shelves are stocked with dozens of probiotic-containing foods, while in Europe, yogurts and fermented milks are the most widely-consumed probiotic products. In the U.S., consumption of probiotic supplements far outweighs consumption of foods containing these beneficial bacteria.
And, why not? They are a convenient way to ensure that you are getting a healthy dose of beneficial bacteria every day.
The Bulgarian Phenomenon
Ilya Metjnikov (1845-1916), a Nobel Prize winning scientist, is usually credited with being the first to discover the unique health benefi ts of probiotics. He speculated that these friendly microbes could play a beneficial role in the aging process. Metjnikov proposed that "the bacterial community residing in the large bowel of humans was a source of substances toxic to the nervous and vascular systems of the host. These toxic substances, absorbed from the bowel and circulating in the bloodstream, contributed to the aging process." Oddly enough, Metjnikov's initial idea for preventing this apparent bacterial decay was to simply remove the large bowel! Fortunately, this idea was replaced with another. Instead of removing the large bowel, try replacing the harmful bacteria in the colon with beneficial strains. This wasn't a new idea. Other scientists had noted that bacteria-producing lactic acid prevented milk from putrefying. Metjnikov thought that the same bacteria might have a similar effect on the digestive tract in people.
What truly convinced Metjnikov, however, was a trip to the Bulgarian countryside where he saw great longevity accompanied by robust health among the peasants living there. What was their secret? They ate fermented dairy products on a daily basis. This was taken as proof that lactic-acid-producing bacteria worked just as Metjnikov predicted they would, and milk inoculated with the so-called "Bulgarian bacillus" enjoyed a wave of popularity in Western Europe. Today, the popularity of probiotics is enjoying a renaissance.
Unfortunately, there are a number of things that can put your supply of beneficial bacteria in peril. Antibiotics are probably the best known threat to your gut's good bacteria. These drugs indiscriminately kill off bacteria—both the bad ones causing your condition and the good ones that help keep you healthy. As a result, antibiotic use, even on a short-term basis, can cause diarrhea or a pesky yeast infection.
Stress, birth control pills, an unhealthy diet, chemical additives and environmental toxins can also destroy our friendly flora. When this happens, harmful bacteria can run rampant, multiplying like wildfire and ultimately causing disease. In fact, low levels of friendly bacteria have been linked to a number of digestive disorders, including constipation, diarrhea, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome. They've also been implicated in jock itch, vaginitis and yeast infections. And surprisingly, some natural health practitioners suspect waning levels of beneficial bacteria can contribute to gingivitis, psoriasis, eczema, migraines, urinary tract infections, chronic fatigue syndrome and even some types of cancer.
The Good Gut
The two most prevalent types of probiotic bacteria that live in our gut are Lactobacillus, found in the small intestines, and Bifi dobacterium, which resides in the large intestines. Not only do these two types of bacteria favorably alter the microfl ora
balance in the intestines, they also promote good digestion and may help to ease the symptoms of chronic digestive disorders. One common malady improved by probiotics is irritable bowel syndrome. Marked by chronic abdominal pain, gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea or constipation alternating with diarrhea, IBS affects at least 10 to 20 percent of adults in the U.S., mostof them women. But according to one randomized clinical trial by researchers from the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota, simply boosting the number of friendly bugs in the gut may improve both colon function and the symptoms of IBS. During the trial, 48 patients with IBS were given either probiotics or a placebo twice a day. Those taking the probitiocs experienced considerably more relief from gas, bloating, abdominal pain and diarrhea than those taking the placebo.
Luckily, while IBS can be painful, it doesn't lead to serious damage. Inflammatory bowel disease, on the other hand, triggers inflammation in the gut that can cause physical damage to the gut wall. Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis are the best known types of IBD and affect as many as one million Americans. Both of these conditions cause abdominal pain and cramping with frequent and urgent diarrhea often containing blood, mucus and pus. Worse yet, left unchecked, IBD can lead to abscesses, infection, fistulas, hemorrhoids, intestinal wall perforations, weight loss and the inability of the gut to absorb nutrients. More seriously, IBD increases the risk of gastrointestinal cancer.
A growing number of studies suggest that probiotics can benefi t both Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis in several ways. Along with competing with the bad bacteria for real estate in the gut, probiotics stimulate the immune system and enhance the barrier function of the intestinal walls. New research also shows that probiotics tame the inflammation that can create future problems.
Boost Your Immunity
Probiotics don't just boost your immunity against gastrointestinal ailments. They also help your entire body stay healthy by preventing the bad bacteria in your gut from escaping into the bloodstream, where it can lead to infection elsewhere. One
double-blind study of 21 healthy adults by Turkish researchers found that those eating a probiotic-rich yogurt had significantly fewer strep germs in their saliva than those who didn't supplement their diets with the special yogurt.
But their immune-boosting properties don't stop there. These healthful critters also boost the immune system by improving the body's resistance to disease. A review by Italian investigators concluded that taking probiotics can help reduce infections in people suffering form severe pancreatitis. Other studies have found that probiotics enhance the immune function of children with HIV, reduce urinary tract infections and may even improve heart health by lowering cholesterol levels. Because of their immune-enhancing effect, preliminary research also suggests that probiotics could help prevent colon, bladder and possibly even breast cancer. While scientists don't know exactly why probiotics appear to guard against cancer, they suspect that beneficial bacteria may prevent tumor growth by inactivating some cancer-causing substances and by preventing precancerous bacteria from becoming carcinogenic.
Probiotics also help keep a lid on inflammation—good news for those suffering from allergies and asthma. An interesting study out of the University of Michigan found that the normal mixture of bacteria and fungi in the gastrointestinal tract can
intensify the immune system's reaction to common allergens, such as pet dander and pollen. But, according to research by the University of California, Davis, taking supplemental probiotics could help to prevent allergies. During their study of 60
people ranging in age from 20 to 70, those eating seven ounces of probiotic-rich yogurt a day suffered far fewer reactions to common allergens than the group that didn't eat the yogurt.
The Candida Connection
If you're a woman who has ever taken antibiotics, you're probably familiar with the yeast infection that often arises after you've been taking your prescription for a few days. Frequent antibiotic use can lead to an overgrowth of yeast (Candida
albicans), which thrives in a gut lacking friendly bacteria. The result is often a vaginal yeast infection complete with itching, burning and a thick discharge, or thrush, a yeast infection in the mouth that causes often painful white or yellow spots on the mouth and tongue.
Preliminary studies show that Lactobacillus acidophilus, one of the primary probiotic strains found in yogurt, produces natural compounds that prevent the overgrowth of candida. Based on this, a growing number of doctors are advising their patients to take probiotics whenever they prescribe a course of antibiotics. Starting the first day you take an antibiotic, take a probioticcontaining at least one billion live organisms per day. For best results, take your probiotic first thing in the morning or between meals when stomach acid is low.
Get Some Culture
Fortunately, you can fortify your army of beneficial bugs by taking a probiotic supplement every day. These beneficial bugs are sold as powders, liquid, capsules and tablets—many of which need to be refrigerated. The minimum dose to prevent
common illnesses is one billion live organisms a day. While that might sound like a lot, it's actually about the same amount you'll find in a cup of yogurt. But when it comes to probiotics, more is better. In fact, it isn't uncommon to take two to six billionorganisms or more per day in divided doses.
In general, numbers of probiotic bacteria are expressed as a CFU count. CFU stands for "colony forming unit." CFUs are live cells that have been rendered dormant and must be reactivated after ingestion on their journey toward the intestinal tract. Consumers are likely to find viable cells in the freeze-dried powders used in supplements. Look for a probiotic supplement that promises a large number of CFUs and make sure the product carries an expiration date. It's also wise to seek out a probiotic that contains a wide variety of beneficial bacteria strains for whole body benefits.
Types of Beneficial Bacteria
There are hundreds of beneficial bacteria strains and they all help the body in different ways. Here are some of the most common:
Be A Good Host
When it comes to the care and feeding of beneficial bacteria, it's important to provide them with a hospitable home. And, like any houseguest, you have to feed them. Prebiotics like fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), which are found in many vegetables, provide the food bacteria need to thrive.
One recent study conducted at the Wageningen Center for Food Sciences in the Netherlands tested the effects of 20,000mg. of FOS in 34 healthy men and found that, as the FOS fermented, both Bifi dobacteria and Lactobacilli numbers increased.
Several other trials have used 8,000 mg. of FOS per day, but there is some evidence that 4,000 mg. may even be enough to significantly increase the amount of Bifi dobacteria and Lactobacilli in your digestive tract.
FOS are naturally occurring carbohydrates that can't be digested or absorbed by humans. Because they support the growth of Bifidobacteria, some doctors recommend taking a prebiotic like FOS if you're taking a probiotic supplement. Fortunately, many high potency probiotics also include FOS or other prebiotics to help ensure a healthy bacterial balance to keep you feeling and functioning at your best.
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