Your digestive system is likely the most vulnerable connection your body has with the outside world. Whatever you put into your mouth is going to spend the next three days traveling through your digestive tract permeating the intestinal walls to be absorbed into the body's circulatory system and tissues. Thus, your overall health is significantly affected by what you eat. Research has shown that the network of neurons lining our guts is so extensive that it is often referred to as our "second brain." The digestive system doesn't think for us, but it does play a key role in certain diseases and communicates with the brain.
The lower gastrointestinal tract (the gut), contains a complex ecosystem of more than 400 bacterial species. In a healthy adult, cells of microorganisms are estimated to outnumber human cells by ten to one. Most of these are situated in your colon while smaller amounts are located in your stomach and small intestines. The "good bacteria" and other microorganisms, referred to as microflora, help the body by aiding in digestion, synthesizing vitamins and nutrients, metabolizing some medications, supporting proper functioning of the gut, and enhancing the immune system. A healthy digestive system eliminates harmful bacteria, toxins, chemicals, and other waste products, while ensuring the absorption of essential nutrients into the cells where they are needed.
Maintaining a balance between the good and bad bacteria are key to optimal health, but this delicate balance is thrown off by poor eating habits, chronic physical and emotional stress, lack of exercise, insufficient rest, frequent use of antibiotics and geographical factors.1
Signs of imbalance can be diarrhea, bloating, cadidiasis, sluggishness and urinary tract infections. Taking antibiotics can also disrupt the bacterial balance in the female genital tract leading to vaginal yeast infections and oral thrush.
Benefits of Probiotics
To give your gut the optimal support it needs many research scientists and doctors are recommending supplementing your diet with probiotics. Probiotics are "live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amount confer a health benefit on the host." (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) They are similar to, or in some cases the same, as beneficial microorganisms that are naturally found in the human gut.
Probiotics are prescribed by practitioners as a supplement to increase the amount of good bacteria in your digestive tract in order to help keep the intestinal tract healthy. They can help keep the digestive system in balance and functioning optimally, restore microflora, and may support immune system function, especially after taking a round of antibiotics, which can destroy good intestinal bacteria, along with the bad. Although you can get some probiotics naturally from eating yogurt or drinking acidophilus milk, the quantity is insufficient.
Research supports taking probiotics as an effective treatment for diarrhea, lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), oral thrush, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis and even to enhance immune function, though clinical trial results are mixed. Babies receiving probiotics in their first six months of life and whose mothers took probiotics during the last trimester of pregnancy are less prone to eczema and alergies.2,3
Children with autism can also benefit from probiotics, possibly because they decrease leakage of large molecules from the gut that can trigger immune reactions with effects on brain function.
There is a solid theoretical basis for why probiotics should help prevent cancer, especially colon cancer, and even reverse cancer. Probiotics produce short chain fatty acids in the colon, which acidify the environment. Lower colon pH is associated with lower incidence of colon cancer. Probiotic bacteria reduce the level of procarcinogenic enzymes such as beta-glucuronidase, nitroreductase, and azoreductase.4
Like the intestinal tract, the vagina is a finely balanced ecosystem. The dominant Lactobacilli strains normally make it too acidic for harmful microorganisms to survive. But the system can be thrown out of balance by a number of factors, including antibiotics, spermicides and birth control pills. Probiotic treatment that restores the balance of microflora may be helpful for such common female urogenital problems as bacterial vaginosis, yeast infection, and urinary tract infection.5
Many species of probiotics exist and not all probiotics are created equal. Efficacy is dependent on the probiotic strains. It cannot be assumed that research published on one strain of probiotic applies to another strain, even of the same species. Therefore, look for documentation on type of bacteria, potency and purity for any strain being considered. (available from the product manufacturer)
To qualify as a probiotic, certain criteria need to be met: a bacterial strain must be fully identified, be safe for ingestion, adhere to the luminal mucosa, colonize the gut, and possess documented health benefits. A probiotic should be delivered in a formulation that is stable when stored. The colony number of bacteria and viability need to be reliable and they must survive the acid and bilious environment in the upper GI tract before they reach the small intestine and colon.6
1. Greenfield, Russell H., MD. 2008. "Prescribing Probiotics". Integrative Medicine. Elsevier
2. Reid, Gregor, Jass, Jana, et al. 2003. "Potential Uses of Probiotics in Clinical Practice".
3. Allen, SJ, et al. 2010. "Probiotics for treating acute infectious diarrhoea."
4. Goldin BR, Gorbach SL. The effect of milk and lactobacillus feeding on human intestinal bacterial enzyme activity. Am J Clin Nutr. 1984;39:756–761.
5. Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide
6. Verna, Elizabeth C. 2010. "Use of probiotics in gastrointestinal disorders: what to recommend?", Therap Adv Gastroenterol.
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About the Author: Elizabeth H. Trattner, A.P., D.O.M. is a Florida and National Board Certified Doctor of Oriental Medicine and Acupuncture and holds a certificate from the Annemarie Colbin Natural Gourmet Cookery School in New York City. Elizabeth specializes in women’s health, weight management, allergies, autoimmune diseases and environmental illnesses. For the past fifteen years she has been advancing the concepts of Integrative Medicine, combining her expertise in acupuncture and oriental medicine with nutritional counseling and women’s health. By drawing on the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine, 17 years of training under Andrew Weil, MD and other natural modalities, she helps patients improve and take control of their health and optimal weight. In the spring of 2008, she was invited to attend and participate in a prestigious medical rotation at the University of Arizona’s Center of Integrative Medicine founded by Dr. Weil. She is the only acupuncture physician in the country with this designation. Elizabeth is a contributing author for several publications and websites on Alternative Medicine including: Cosmetic Dermatology: Principles and Practice by Dr. Leslie Baumann; Ask Dr. Weil at www.drweil.com; and CSSAssociation.org.