THE HUMAN BODY contains an estimated 100 trillion bacterial cells from at least 500 species, not including viruses and fungi. These bacteria are known as “friendly” bacteria, or probiotics, and are vital for many important biological functions, including digestion; combating harmful bacteria, fungal and yeast infections; manufacturing vitamins B and K; producing hormones to store excess nutrients; and stimulating the immune system.
The website GreenMedInfo has assembled a list of more than 200 studies, investigating more than 170 diseases alleviated or treated with probiotics. These include irritable bowel syndrome, atopic dermatitis, diarrhea, allergic rhinitis and the common cold. One of the studies linked on the site says, “The ability of the gut microbiota and oral probiotics to influence systemic inflammation, oxidative stress, glycemic control, tissue lipid content and even mood itself, may have important implications.”
Benefits beyond the gut
According to the January 17, 2012, edition of The Wall Street Journal, current research shows the gut affects bodily functions beyond digestion and immune function. Studies have shown intriguing links between the gut’s health and bone formation, learning and memory, and even conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. Recent research found that imbalances in intestinal bacteria can prompt depression and anxiety—at least in lab rats. The gut is important in medical research, not just for problems pertaining to the digestive system but also problems pertaining to the rest of the body.
As Candace Pert, an internationally recognized pharmacologist, explains in her book Molecules of Emotion, more than 90 percent of serotonin, the “feel good” hormone, is found in the digestive tract. To quote self-help guru Deepak Chopra, who earned an M.D., “When you say you have a ‘gut feeling’ about something,
you’re not talking metaphorically.”
Unfortunately, a modern fast-food diet and high-stress lifestyle can result in nutritional deficiencies and an imbalance of pathogenic bacteria versus beneficial bacteria in your gut.
The remedy? Boosting your probiotic intake.Dr.believes that “a daily probiotic is more important than a daily multivitamin.”
There are natural food sources of probiotics. Historically, people used fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir (fermented milk), some cheeses, sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), kimchi (Korean spicy cabbage) and tempeh (a fermented soybean product). Some people still derive probiotics from such food sources, but it’s questionable if the bacteria can survive the pasteurization, transportation and storage of commercially prepared foods.
Other sources include over-the-counter supplements that contain bacteria (usually freeze-dried) in amounts likely to remain viable in your digestive tract after you’ve swallowed the supplement.
Cautions and care
Are there any side effects or risks attached to probiotic use? Beneficial bacteria occur naturally and are generally well tolerated. However, individuals with immunodeficiency (e.g., those with AIDS) or who are taking immunosuppressive drugs, or receiving chemotherapy or radiation treatment or treatment for any serious medical condition, should follow the advice of their doctor or health professional. As with all medications and supplements, read the label and follow the directions for dosage and frequency.
Some brands advise refrigeration and others claim it is not necessary. Most health professionals recommend the former, but some supplement manufacturers assert that improvements in encapsulation technology maintain shelf stability well past the expiry date, which certainly helps when traveling.
Another divisive issue is whether a probiotic should be taken with food or on an empty stomach. Again, follow the directions on the label or the advice of your health professional. Your gut is a battleground: dark angels of pathogens battling bright angels of wellbeing. You may be able to help the latter with a daily supplement of probiotics.