Inside each of us live vast numbers of bacteria without which we could not remain in good health. Before looking at the amazing things they do, reflect on just how many of them we house.
There are several thousand billion in each person (more than all the cells in the body) divided into four hundred species, most of them living in the digestive tract. If they were all placed together the total weight of this "friendly" bacteria would come to nearly four pounds and, in fact, about a third of the fecal matter (water removed) which you pass consists of dead or viable bacteria.
The Role of Friendly Bacteria in Health.
These bacteria are not parasites. They do not just take up residence and do nothing in return, but perform many important functions in the body. We live in true symbiosis with them. As long as we provide them with a reasonable diet and as long as they remain in good health, these bacteria provide excellent service in return.
However, not all of the friendly bacteria perform the same functions, some being far more useful and plentiful than others. These are the ones presented here. Certain bacteria help to maintain good health while others have a definite value in helping us regain health once it has been upset.
These dual protective and therapeutic roles help explain why the word "probiotics" was coined since it means "for life" :
Types of Friendly Bacteria
Of the friendly bacteria which help the human body most are the residents, while the others are transient visitors, staying in your digestive tract for a few weeks before passing on. The principle forms of friendly bacteria are :
This is the main inhabitant of the small intestine in humans and animals. It is also found in the mouth and vagina. Acidophilus manufactures lactase to digest milk sugar and produces lactic acid which suppresses undesirable bacteria and yeasts. Some strains produce natural antibiotics. They also lower cholesterol levels and kill candida yeasts, and are very susceptible to poor diet and stress conditions, pollution, and antibiotics such as penicillin.
This is a transient but very important bacteria. Together with Streptococcus thermophilus it makes yogurt. Some strains of bulgaricus and thermophilus also produce antibiotics which kill harmful bacteria. By manufacturing lactic acid these bacteria encourage a good environment for the resident bacteria such as acidophilus and the bifidobacteria.
Bifidobacterium Bifidum and Bifidobacteriumlongum
These are the main inhabitants of the large intestine. Bifidobacterium Bifidum is also found in the vagina and the lower part of the small intestine. In breastfed infants and adolescents these make up 99% of the entire flora of the bowel. There is strong evidence that the numbers and efficient working of these bacteria decline as a person ages and with any decline in our health status.
The bacteria produce a number of specialized acids and use these to prevent colonization of the large intestine by invading bacteria, yeasts and some viruses. They also prevent potential toxicity from nitrites in food and manufacture B Vitamins as well as helping detoxify bile from which they recycle estrogen in women.
This is the main inhabitant of every infant's intestines and is found in small amounts in the vagina. It's functions are very much the same as the other bifidobacteria. In a freeze-dried form it is the only probiotic product which should be supplemented to infants without professional guidance.
What Damages the Friendly Bacteria ?
Many factors influence just how healthy the flora are. While the type of friendly bacteria living in a region may seem much the same in health and disease, the tasks they perform change according to circumstances. For example, when bifidobacteria are in a good state of health they will detoxify pollutants and carcinogens as well as manufacture various B Vitamins. When in a poor state of health, however, they just cannot do these jobs as well or at all.
What Makes Friendly Bacteria Function Less Efficiently ?
The level of local acidity is one major influence upon the function of the friendly bacteria and this is contributed to by diet, digestive function, and stress. Another important influence is the speed of peristalsis (the wavelike contraction of the intestines) which moves food along the digestive tract. If it is too rapid (as in diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, or colitis) this severely reduces the efficiency of the flora. If it is too slow (as in atonic or spastic constipation) this too causes changes in their function.
The type of diet you eat is a major influence on bacterial health. The bacteria are healthier on a diet rich in complex carbohydrates (vegetables, whole grains, legumes) and low in animal fats, fatty meat, sugars, and cultured dairy products (especially "live" yogurt and cottage cheese). Not surprisingly, the diet which is best for people is also ideal for healthy bacteria.
They are also influenced to a major extent by the degree of infection by yeasts and bacteria to which the bowel is subjected. Certain drugs, especially antibiotics, can severely upset this delicate balance (penicillin will kill friendly bacteria just as efficiently as it will kill disease-causing bacteria). Steroids (hormonal drugs such as cortisone, ACTH, prednisone, and birth control pills) also cause great damage to the bowel flora.
Damaged friendly bacteria can regain health and efficiency by dealing with any of the factors listed above, especially diet and stress reduction, and by supplementing good quality freeze-dried bacteria such as Lactobacillus Acidophilus or Lactobacillus Bulgaricus. The way the products are made is important :
When to Use Probiotic Supplements
Probiotics may be used in the following cases :
Which Bacteria Can the Friendly Flora Control ?Many studies prove the antibiotic effects of the friendly bacteria.
Breast Milk and the Health of Intestinal Flora
German research shows that the state of the intestinal flora in most breastfed babies today is similar to that of formula fed babies forty years ago. The result is malabsorption and food sensitivity problems as well as increase in allergies and susceptibility to infection. Further research has pointed to contamination of breast milk with pollutants such as DDT and dioxin. This suggests that supplementation of all babies with Bifidobacteria Infantis may be a helpful strategy.