Did you know that your digestive system is home to more than one hundred trillion bacteria. Yes you read that correct - 1,000,000,000,000 creepy crawlies found primarily in your small intestine and colon (oh and a few BILLION in your mouth). In fact, you have more bacteria in your gut, than cells in your entire body. According to Elizabeth Lipski, Ph.D., and author of "Digestive Wellness" the dry weight of your stool is comprised of 80% bacteria and a whopping 50% of it is still alive. The balance of good vs bad bacteria is absolutely critical for health and they do a heck of a lot more than just give you the heebeejeebees. I know I got a little itchy when I first wrote this article too. :)
What do these trillions of bacteria do?
These bacteria are a hot topic in the news and there's no shortage of products popping up everywhere on store shelves with added "bacteria". The bacteria does an absolutely incredible job at keeping us healthy, but can also have a negative effect too, if the bad guys get out of hand. So what's all the fuss about? Bacteria does all this and more:
Keep our immune system strong and play a very important role in our ability to fight infectious disease
Affect our nutritional status - absorption of minerals/manufacture of vitamins
Friendly bacteria actually make: biotin, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, folic acid and vitamin K
And they increase absorption of calcium, copper, iron, magnesium and manganese
Manufacture substances that raise and lower our risk of disease and cancer
Impact the effect of drugs
Impact our rate of aging - whoa! I bet you are thinking about that organic yogurt now?
Some of these bacteria can cause acute or chronic disease
And some can cause serious illness in people who are more genetically susceptible, but no problems in other people
Help us increase our resistance to food poisoning
Improve digestive health: inflammatory bowel diseases (IBS), constipation, diarrhea etc
Help us digest lactose. This is why some people can tolerate yogurt but not milk, for the simple reason that there is more good bacteria in yogurt
Beneficial in treating: vaginal yeast infections, thrush, urinary tract infections, arthritis, cholesterol
I could list more reasons, but I think you get the point, they are important for a healthy body, not just a happy colon
Where did these creepy crawlies come from?
The two most important groups of flora are the lactobacilli (I just love saying that word aloud) found in the small intestine and bifidobacterium (say that 5 x fast), found primarily in the colon. Here's the deal: we are literally born with a sterile digestive tract. We are then exposed to good bacteria in breast milk and with every breath and touch, bacteria enter the body to colonize and make a cozy home. Within the first few days of life, we are home to hundreds of bacteria and breast-fed babies have increased numbers of lactobacillus and bifidobacteria species from mama - yet another reason to breast feed your bebe. Often times when babies are unable to properly colonize the friendly bacteria they become irritable, colicky, have gas and even eczema on their bottom. They are also more susceptible to allergies and asthma according to Elizabeth Lipski, Ph.D.
Not all the creepy crawlies want to make us healthy.
Unfortunately, the friendly bacteria only comprise a very small percentage of our total bacteria. Most disease causing bacteria thrive at human body temperature, while a fever kills them by overheating your body. Don't you just love how smart your body is? If you have a sudden invasion of salmonella your body reacts quickly by saying "GET THIS OUT OF HERE IMMEDIATELY", and you get a bout of diarrhea or vomiting. Be thankful for this response, I cringe at the thought of people taking diarrhea suppressing drugs when they have food poisoning, as this could lead to more health complications later on down the road. The last thing you want to do is plug up that bad bacteria.
How do you balance your gut with more good than bad?
You eat them, avoid processed foods and take a good quality supplement. As a nutritionist, this is the sort of thing I teach people everyday in my practice - what foods to eat to increase friendly bacteria and what supplements are best. Here's a great article on my favourite bacteria rich food: http://joyoushealth.wordpress.com/2010/01/04/kefir-is-a-super-food/
There is an array of probiotic supplements on the market and believe me, some of them I wouldn't touch with a 10 ft pole. I prefer to use only professional lines that can be purchased from a certified Nutritionist or N.D. because they are batch tested, adhere to strict regulations and grow and source their bacteria from reputable companies. I once had a client come to me with very poor gut health and serious digestive problems. She was taking a very cheap brand of probiotics and as soon as I switched her to a reputable brand, her symptoms went away. Here's the thing, every person has slightly different needs, nutritional status/deficiencies, age impacts what you should and should not take and therefore, it is absolutely critical to speak with a certified nutritionist to find out what your needs are. You may not need to take a $120 bottle of probiotics, but you might need to make some dietary changes and take a $30 bottle of acidophilus.
As Dr. Bernard Jensen has stated many times in his books, the gut is really the root cause of disease. Keeping your gut healthy with good bacteria is absolutely critical to the health of your whole body. I'm not saying that probiotics solve every problem, but they are certainly one of the most basic supplements that every person should be taking.