In our western society we are taught that bacteria are bad. We have hand soap that is antibacterial. We have laundry detergent that kills every likely microbe. We take antibiotics at the very first sign of a cough or sniffle. We treat our livestock with huge quantities of antibiotics. Our drinking water is treated with chlorine to kill off any living matter.
This isn’t to say that certain bacteria are not bad for us… they certainly can be. But our society has garnered this underlying attitude that bacteria are the enemy and our bodies should be bacteria-free. There are those that would have us believe that we should be living in an entirely sterile environment.
Nothing could be further from the truth! Not all bacteria are bad. Understanding this distinction can be vital to good health.
Did you know that a healthy adult should have some 3 to 4 pounds of bacteria within the gastro-intestinal tract? There actually should be more cells of these bacteria then there are of all the cells in the rest of your body combined!
Before I explain all of the positive benefits of maintaining a proper bacterial environment within the gut, let me point out another little fact about the gut that few people fully understand. The gastrointestinal tract is really just a tube that runs through your body, from your mouth to your stomach to your small and large intestines to your colon and out the other end. It actually is not part of your internal body… the GI tract should be thought of as part of the outside world. It is not until something gets absorbed through that lining that it really becomes part of us.
The possibility exists for all sorts of things to grow and proliferate within the gut. Many of these things we would see as negative or unhealthy… negative bacteria, viruses, fungi, and yeasts. The result of playing host to these invaders can be devastating to your health in many different arenas.
Did you know that 70% of immune function actually happens within the gut? Did you know that there is more neurotransmitter activity in the gut then there is in the brain?
The “good” or “friendly” bacteria that live in your gut are responsible for many helpful functions within your body.
- Having a healthy growth of these probiotics will make it harder for the bad things to be able to live. In other words, the good bacteria crowd out the bad stuff. I remember in my days as a traditional pharmacist that it was not unusual for a woman to come into the pharmacy with 2 prescriptions… one for an antibiotic and one for Terazol or Monistat to treat the yeast infection that was sure to follow 3 days later. This happens because taking the antibiotic kills off the good bacteria in the gut, which is keeping a check on the yeast. When the good bacteria are gone, then the yeast is able to overgrow. This can show up in many different ways, including vaginal yeast infections, athlete’s foot, chronic sinus “infections” (which is often really a fungal infection in the sinuses), etc.
- These little bacteria play an important role in proper bowel elimination. In fact, half of the bulk of a normal stool is made up of the dead cells of these good bacteria as they run through their life cycle and die. Again, what often happens to the bowels when an antibiotic is taken? Of course… diarrhea! This happens because the antibiotic kills the good stuff along with the bad.
- The friendly bugs also play an important role in digestion. Indigestion, bloating, gas and even reflux can be negatively affected when the proper ecological balance is not maintained in the gut.
- Probiotics can even be responsible for making some nutrients, like vitamin K and some of the B vitamins.
So what are the factors that can beat up or kill the good bacteria in our guts?
- Use of antibiotics. One of my favorite things to ask when I do a talk to the public is about antibiotic use. I ask for a show of hands… “Who has used an antibiotic in the past 2 weeks?” Usually a few hands go up. Then I ask…”Who has eaten beef or chicken or had tap water to drink in the past 2 weeks?” Of course, almost every hand in the room goes up! And then I point out that every one of these people has had antibiotics. There are low levels of antibiotics in the food stock in this country. And, as mentioned earlier, tap water has chlorine in it to kill off bacteria. All of this has a major negative effect on the friendly bacteria living in our guts!
- Certain foods. Alcohol and caffeine are substances that can be responsible for killing the good bacteria in the gut.
- Stress. Living in our times, exposing ourselves to environmental, physical, emotional and spiritual stress, all has the tendency to kill off the good stuff in our GI tracts.
- Other pharmaceuticals. There are a list of other prescription or over-the-counter medicines that exert a negative influence over the growth of good bacteria in the gut.
The next question is where do we get this bacteria from and how do we maintain it in our guts?
The answer to that question is very interesting. First and foremost, we are supposed to get these good bacteria from our environment. This is why thinking that we should live in a sterile environment is backwards.
The introduction of the bacteria starts with the very first exposure to the outside world when we are born. It is interesting to note that babies that are born vaginally have a different set of bacteria in their guts than babies that are born by cesarean section. Nature intended for us to come into the world in a specific way for important reasons. That isn’t to say that c-sections are bad… the truth is that my daughter would not be here if not for that life-saving, surgical intervention. However, it is also interesting to note that the bowel habits of my daughter differ markedly from that of her younger brother, who was born vaginally. Furthermore… babies that are breast-fed also get different bacteria in their guts than babies that are fed from bottles (with nipples on them that are sterilized).
We also get certain bacteria from the food that we eat. It seems that fermented foods, like yogurt, sauerkraut, cheeses, certain breads, kefir… all may be helpful in providing cultures of the friendly bugs that should be growing in our intestinal tracts.
Another interesting note has to do with a poorly understood part of the digestive tract called the appendix. I was actually taught in pharmacy school that the appendix is an “old” organ that has no use today and that evolution was making it slowly go away in humans. I firmly believe that God did not give us any extra parts and that just because medical science can’t figure it out does not mean that a function does not exist. In the 1950’s it was believed that the thymus gland had no function either. Of course, today we understand that the thymus gland is a master gland in the body responsible for many issues, including the immune system!
So what we do know about the appendix is that is seems to be a reservoir of bacteria. We also know that when it gets infected and bursts, the resulting overload of bacteria can become life threatening. I also note that in my patients that have had their appendix removed (sometimes, apparently, just because some surgeon felt like taking it out, even though the patient was “opened up” for other reasons) they have a tendency to have a harder time maintaining the proper balance of good bacteria and a tendency towards all of the resultant problems. I believe that the appendix’ function is to act as a constant source of certain bacteria… to help re-inoculate the gut with this bacteria as needed.
As with other nutrients and substances that we are supposed to be getting from our diet and/or environment… I believe that supplementation of the good bacteria may be needed from time to time. There are numerous products on the market that include bacteria like acidophilus or bifidus. There are literally dozens of good bacteria that play a role in gut function, either as permanent residents or transient helpers.
A whole science exists around trying to get these bacteria to stay alive within a capsule or powder until it gets to you. Please understand that when a label reads “one billion live bacteria per capsules” that what it may mean is “at time of manufacture.” A product that guarantees the number of live bacteria at time of expiration is the better way to go. Also, having a product that uses good bacteria that are somewhat resistant to an acidic environment allows for the bacteria to better survive the trip through the stomach.
It used to be that a proper product had to be maintained under appropriate refrigeration for it to have anything still alive by the time it hits your gut. Today, however, newer technology exists that allows for the viability of living bacteria at room temperature.
Lastly, there is a substance called FOS, which stands for FructoOligoSaccharides, that is food for the bacteria to feed off of in the gut. Some products may contain FOS or other bacteria-food substances to help insure the probiotics will proliferate well.
There are 2 particular products that I use in my practice with great success…
- Probiotic by Healthy Origins – this formula offers 30 billion bacteria per capsule, an excellent mix of acid-resistant strains, and is shelf stable for at least a year and a half.
- 35 Billion Probiotic by Well Being – this formula offers 35 billion bacteria per capsule, an excellent mix of acid-resistant strains, is also shelf stable at room temperature and also contains a dose of FOS.
Some yogurts do contain live cultures of acidophilus. However, the amounts are not sufficient to be a great help if the need is there, and getting all of the sugar and/or nutrasweet that you would get with the yogurt would counteract any possible benefit from the bacteria.
If you happen to be on antibiotics, the idea is to start the probiotic supplement as soon as you can, and continue doing so for at least two weeks after the antibiotics are gone.
In conclusion, if you suffer from every day problems that do not seem to get better… things like digestive issues, bowel problems (constipation or diarrhea), immune dysfunction, skin problems, yeast or fungal issues… don’t be afraid to look at the gut as the source and you may just find out what really is bugging you!