You probably are not even sure what a probiotic supplement is, much less what it can do for your intestinal health if added to your personal health regimen.
I’ll try to give you an answer, but I need to explain a couple of things about our bodies first.
THE DIGESTIVE SYSTEM AND THE BACTERIA LIVING IN IT
Our bodies, including really healthy ones, have trillions of friendly microorganisms living in them, with the vast majority being found in the large intestine, or colon. In fact, their actions in the colon are of prime importance to our health. One of their most important jobs is helping to keep other, less desirable organisms, under control. When these other organisms go out of control, we can experience all kinds of problems. These friendly microorganisms, by the way, are often referred to as ‘intestinal microflora’.
The digestive tract of a fetus is sterile. However, the passage through the birth canal exposes the newborn to bacteria, and, once in the world, this exposure will continue for all the days of its life. Billions of bacteria will colonize the oral cavity and billions more will set up housekeeping in the small intestine. The largest group, however, will create the biggest homestead in the colon. As many as one hundred trillion will build homes and raise families. Estimates put the number of microorganisms in the colon at a greater level than the number of cells in the body itself!
The life of these bacteria can remind you of an old Clint Eastwood movie. This production might be titled, “The Good. The Bad. The Indifferent.”. Oddly enough, even though there are 400 to 500 types of these bacteria living in our colons, most have little or no effect on our overall health.
Like a spaghetti western, however, the bad guys can wreak havoc if they get out of control. Their escapades can cause illnesses, or set us up for takeover by other, usually long-term and opportunistic, health problems. All opportunistic means, by the way, is that a healthy body might normally be able to fight off certain infections, but, if the immune system has been in some way weakened by the production of toxic substances in the colon, the infection might be able to establish a beachhead in the body.
I think I drifted into a John Wayne war movie metaphor with the beachhead thing. Oh, well. Sorry, Clint.
THE FRIENDLY MICROORGANISMS
Among all these countless microorganisms, there are two major players whose presence acts as the town marshal and deputy (back to the western again) who keep the rowdies under control and help the body stay healthy.
The two really important friendly microorganisms are the lactobacilli, who tend to hang out at the “Small Intestine Saloon”, and the bifidobacteria who keep watch out on the range in the large intestine, or colon. Large healthy colonies of these two bacteria tend to protect us from the invasion of the bad microorganism body-snatchers.
Oops! I drifted into a horror movie genre for a second didn’t I? I’ll try to pay more attention.
Anyway, the interesting thing, at least to me, is that the good guys beat the bad guys pretty much by outnumbering them! They don’t really get into brawls with one another, it’s just that if there are enough friendly microorganisms, they just take over the territory and don’t leave enough room for the bad guys. Now, if you still want to think of it as some kind of battle, here’s what lactobacilli and bifidobacteria do to win.
1. When there is a high enough concentration of lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, they seem to enhance immune system function and help boost the natural abilities of the white blood cells, which are crucial to proper immune system functioning.
2. Friendly microorganisms help maintain the naturally low acid pH balance normally found in the healthy intestine. The metabolic byproducts of friendly microflora, help maintain this low acid pH balance and this discourages the growth of other, less desirable, microflora.
3. When it comes to getting to nutrients, a healthy population of lactobacilli and bifidobacteria can beat out the bad guys at the lunch counter, if not in the saloon, in effect starving the bad guys into submission.
DETOXIFICATION AND HEALTHY COLON SUPPORT
Toxins from foods and environmental pollutants are processed in the liver, they are released into the small intestine. However, they have been placed into ‘jail cells’ made up of bile and exist as detoxified elements which can no longer harm the intestinal community, and, by extension, your body. Unfortunately, the bad microorganisms tend to break these guys out of jail, giving them the opportunity to shoot up the town and terrorize the good guys…metaphorically speaking, of course. A large enough dietary level of lactobacilli can put a damper on these ‘jail breaks’.
I’m going to skip a long, involved explanation about the effects of ‘short chain fatty acids’, and cut to the chase on the healthy colon thing. Let’s just leave it that much research indicates that lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, can help maintain a healthy condition of the colon cells and sustain the proper functioning of the gastrointestinal system.
THE PROBLEM…OR PROBLEMS
A lot of attention these days is devoted to such ‘unfriendly microorganisms’ such as Candida albicans, which currently the poster child for the bad things that can happen when we neglect our ‘friendly microorganisms’.
Candida albicans is one of those bad guys we have been talking about which can take over the town when the marshal and his deputy are weak and without the power to stop them. Candida overgrowth, which occurs in such a situation, can be the direct or indirect cause of all kinds of problems ranging from gas and bloating to chronic fatigue. In the presence of an overgrowth, the body may demand extra food, usually in the form of carbs, or simply fall prey to a myriad of ‘opportunistic’ infections mentioned earlier. The really terrible part is that most people are walking around with a mass of these problems either present or waiting offstage and do not even know it. They just think that the way they feel and the way their body behaves is natural.
Several factors, some related to our modern lives, some simply a part of life, can contribute to a reduction of the friendly microorganisms, or impact their efficiency, thus allowing the growth of Candida albicans and other unfriendly microorganisms.
Of these factors, the three most important are:
*Antibiotics – These wonder drugs, which can be so beneficial to health, usually don’t know the bad guys from the good guys. You might consider them to be a Gatling gun at a gunfight. Everybody gets mowed down, including lactobacilli and bifidobacteria. Even worse, many doctors will prescribe antibiotics even when they are not needed ‘just to be sure’.
*Age – Like so many other things, our two friends tend to die off with age.
*Diet – Particularly in the western world, but also in countries adopting the western diet, food tends to be high in animal fat and low in fiber. Lactobacilli and bifidobacteria feed on undigested dietary fiber, but suffer when animal fat, sugar (very common), and alcohol are introduced. The typical western diet, particularly when ordered at the local fast food establishment, can deliver a nearly lethal one-two punch.
Fortunately, there ARE things that can be done to protect and support the friendly microorganisms. The last item we mentioned in the section on problems was ‘diet’ so let’s start with that.
*Diet – Simply change over to a diet low in fat and high in fiber. Make sure you include plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes.
*Exercise – Study after study has shown the link between exercise and a broad range of benefits to the health of the body. In addition to strengthening the immune system so that it might not be so badly affected by Candida albicans or other bad microorganisms, exercise seems to improve the overall functioning of all the body’s systems, including the digestive system.
*The Probiotic Supplement – There are many good probiotic supplements available from many sources today. The benefit of the probiotic supplement rests in the fact that it returns lactobacilli and bifidobacteria to the intestinal tract, thus restoring the balance of power in the digestive system.