Since the late 19th century mankind has been waging war on beings that have always been with us, bacteria. From pasteurization to antibiotics to hand sanitizers, we have spent over a century honing in on various ways to slay the invaders.
But, like it or not, there are more bacteria and other microbial beings in our bodies than there are human cells. That is right: we are more microbe than human. They are everywhere. Our digestive system, our mouths, our skin — name a place, there is probably helpful bacteria living there.
What we need to come to grips with is that most of these bacteria, at worst, mean us no harm. In fact some bacteria are an integral part of our health, helping us absorb nutrients, decrease inflammation, fight the real invaders, and even regulate mood by regulating neurotransmitter production. There are countless types of bacteria in and on our bodies, with countless roles and countless benefits.
In utero our intestines are sterile. Our first dose of bacteria comes while passing through our mothers’ vaginal canal, followed by more through her milk. That is the easy part. Keeping the critters thriving and healthy is the challenge.
As noted above, there are countless species of beneficial bacteria throughout our bodies. A few well known are varieties are bifido, lactobacillus acidophilus, and streptococcus thermophilus. These may look familiar because you have seen them on bottles of probiotics and are the most studied. In any case, their needs and sensitivities are about the same, and we can get them from a few places.
After vaginal delivery and breast milk, we get these good bacteria from such diverse edible sources as dirt and sauerkraut. Any fermented food — and most dirt — will add to the bacterial population. Their food — known as prebiotics — is indigestible carbohydrates found in a variety of foods, such as leeks and onions, honey, garlic, bananas, artichokes, beans, apples, chicory, and more. As with so many aspects of health, a diverse diet is key, and will keep your bacterial friends happy.
It should be noted here that commercial yogurts are not a good option for probiotics. The amount they contain is usually negligible, and they often contain sugar, which is counter-productive because sugar feeds yeast which causes a negative impact.
So why should we care? Well, babies delivered via C-section do not get that initial dose, and are more likely to experience allergies, obesity, irritable bowels, asthma, and more. A deficiency or imbalance has been linked to many autoimmune conditions, from Chrohn’s to eczema, not to mention the immediate risk of harmful bacteria taking advantage of the void and causing serious or life-threatening problems.
Intentional or unintentional ingestion of antibiotics, chemical exposure, and infection all have a negative impact on the beneficial bacteria in our bodies. Antibiotics do not differentiate between good and bad, they kill everything. Chemicals are often designed to kill microbes, and just as often have consequences beyond the use on their labels. Infections can cause an imbalance, with the unwanted organisms taking control.
Then there is the issue of starving the bacteria by not consuming enough prebiotics and fermented foods. All living things need to eat, and they only have access to what we put in our bodies, for better or worse.
It is possible, and important, to test the presence of beneficial microbes with a stool sample. This will show the levels of specific organisms, and can be a valuable tool in piecing together why some symptoms are present.
Now we come to the matter of bottles probiotics. There are a lot of options out there, and not all are created equally. The most important things to look for are:
It contains multiple strains of bacteria, not just one.
It is refrigerated.
It contains at least 10 billion CFU (colony forming units).
Higher strengths are recommended after infection, a course of antibiotics, or other scenarios that require replenishment of the population.
An item you are likely to see alongside the probiotics is sacchromyces boulardii. Boulardii is a yeast with a number of beneficial properties. Most important are the antitoxin and antimicrobial effects, which prevent infection of clostridium difficile, harmful bacteria that can take hold after antibiotics have wiped out good bacteria in the intestines.
Boulardii is often used for so-called “traveler’s diarrhea”, again because it hinders the organisms that cause the imbalance and upset.
The war on bacteria has to end, and so does overlooking this indispensable part of our health. If you suspect that your family of bacteria is unhealthy or unbalanced, or you just want a checkup to see how they are doing, contact our naturopathic clinic.