The word bacteria may invoke images of something harmful or unsanitary – spoiled food, perhaps, or a dirty bathroom. However, many bacteria are beneficial to our health. Our bodies are teeming with trillions of bacteria from numerous species that promote healthy digestion, produce vitamins, fight infection and enhance immune function, among other things. To put this into perspective, each person’s digestive tract contains between three and four pounds of beneficial bacteria, or probiotics. Two particular types of bacteria – Lactobacillus acidophilus (often called acidophilus) and Bifidobacterium bifidum – are among the most helpful of these probiotics.
Battle for the Gut
We are not born with a ready-made supply of beneficial bacteria, but we begin to acquire them soon after birth. Initially, infants receive beneficial bacteria from their mother’s breast milk. As infants grow and start to eat other types of food, additional bacterial – both good and bad – begin to colonize their bodies. As we mature, an ongoing battle rages as beneficial bacteria and harmful microbes fight for domination of the gut and other parts of the body. By maintaining optimal levels of beneficial bacteria, we can keep the harmful varieties in check, thereby preventing a host of gastrointestinal maladies and keeping a variety of diseases at bay.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
A strong population of beneficial bacteria in the gut largely neutralizes any unwelcome intruders that enter the body, such as molds, yeasts and harmful bacteria. When the gastrointestinal tract is thoroughly colonized by beneficial bacteria, harmful pathogens will find no suitable place to form new colonies. Conversely, if harmful bacteria dominate the gut, they will welcome more of their kind and fend off beneficial bacteria, creating an ugly pathogen- and toxin-ridden digestive tract that can create serious health problems throughout the body. This condition is called dysbiosis.
Antibiotics Kill Beneficial Bacteria, Too
Ironically, one of the greatest threats to beneficial bacteria is something that is used to treat illness and promote health – antibiotics. While antibiotics serve a critical, and sometimes life-saving, function in treating infections caused by harmful bacteria, they also decimate the body’s colonies of beneficial bacteria. This decrease in beneficial bacteria sets the stage for pathogen proliferation in the gut, secondary infection and, eventually, resistance to antibiotics themselves.
Antibiotics and Vaginal Yeast Infections
One example of the detrimental effects of antibiotics on the delicate balance of natural flora involves the proliferation of vaginal yeast infections in women who take antibiotics.
Vaginal yeast is held in check by acidophilus and other beneficial bacteria. Once an antibiotic kills those bacteria, the yeast multiply and spread quickly, causing a yeast infection. Symptoms of yeast infections include itching, burning, redness, irritation and painful sexual intercourse. Chronic yeast infections are an increasingly common health problem among women; if left untreated, they can lead to more serious health conditions.
Acute yeast infections can be safely and effectively treated with over-the-counter medications, but these remedies don’t offer long-term solutions to avoiding chronic infections. Probiotic supplements and dairy products that contain living bacterial cultures (such as yogurt and kefir) do. By helping to reestablish colonies of B. bifidum, L. acidophilus and other beneficial bacteria, these foods and supplements help maintain a healthy microbial balance in the vagina and surrounding tissues.
Conditions that can result from an unhealthy imbalance of intestinal bacteria
Attention deficit disorder
Eczema and psoriasis
Irritable bowel disease