When my late father was a boy, his family had never heard of either probiotics or antibiotics. He was born ten years before the First World War and grew up on a farm in the British colony of Natal in south eastern Africa. There was no electricity, no running water, and no flushing toilet.
Dad and his brothers played in the dust and mud of the farmyard and swam in the stream below the milking shed. In later years, he would often claim that this exposure to a less-than-hygienic environment actually increased his resistance to disease.
In today’s world there is a very different mindset. Television commercials show graphic warnings about how we can pick up germs from just about everything we touch, trying to persuade us to buy anti-bacterial soaps, shampoos, and even dishwashing liquids and laundry powders.
Strangely however, health scientists are discovering that Dad may have been on the right track after all. Not all bacteria are bad. Some are actually good for us. We need them to stay healthy, and in this super-clean world we probably don’t have enough of them in our systems!
The term “probiotics” may be relatively new to you but it is rapidly gaining ground in our vocabularies. And yes, probiotics are indeed the opposite of antibiotics. The word is derived from the Greek and means “for life” (and “anti” means what?)
Most of us have taken an antibiotic at some time or other. It’s pretty well a standard cure for a whole lot of the health problems that are cause by bacteria. You fall ill, the doctor prescribes an antibiotic, the drug whacks the germs, and you get better.
Up to a point. Medical science has recently been discovering two quite worrisome things, together with one that is more comforting.
The worrying things are firstly, that while antibiotics provide a quick cure to the immediate problem, they have long term effects that are not so desirable.
Secondly, some bacteria are developing a resistance to antibiotics so that they no longer work so effectively, if at all. (One of the most alarming examples is the emergence of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, or XDR-TB.)
The more comforting discovery is that some bacteria are actually positively good for us, and that these can be boosted with probiotics.
What the health scientists are realizing (in simple terms) is that there are good bacteria as well as bad. The good bacteria play a vital role in keeping us healthy, and if we don’t have enough of them our health suffers – in some quite remarkable ways. It is these good guys thatare called probiotics.
The list of health problems that could happen when the balance goes wrong is really alarming: food intolerances, allergies, asthma, eczema, psoriasis, arthritis, neurological and mental ailments, depression, ADHD, autism, cancer, heart disease.
In the next section we provide some detail how this happens.
Bacteria are independent living micro-organisms. The scientists reckon that they were ahead of us on the evolutionary trail, and maybe we couldn’t have evolved without them. It has even been shown that the mitochondria in our cells – the things that produce the energy we need to stay alive and active - developed from free microbacterial organisms in the distant past.
Certainly we couldn’t survive without them. And there’s an immense number of them in a healthy human body:
* There are more bacteria on the surface of your tongue than people in the world.
* There are more bacteria in the gut than there are cells in the body.
* The average adult carries about 2 kg of microorganisms in the bowel.
Most of them are in the intestines (in fact, the whole surface of the gut is covered with a bacterial layer) and we have a symbiotic relationship with them – we host them, and they help us in several really important ways:
- They convert ingested foods into nutrients for the cells of the intestines and aid in its absorption.
- They provide transport systems to get the nutrients through the gut wall and into the blood stream.
- They synthesise many nutrients including many of the B vitamins and Vitamin K. These are water soluble vitamins so need to be constantly produced and absorbed.
- They act as detoxifiers. They bind to toxic heavy metals (Al, Pb and Hg) and prevent them from entering the blood, they break down and get rid of petrochemicals, carcinogens, oestrogens and virtually any other toxins.
- They protect against invading pathogens, killing them off and preventing them from adhering to the gut surface and gaining a foothold.
* Pathogens can cause the development of ‘leaky gut syndrome’ which happens when pathogens damage the gut wall. The wall becomes porous and partially digested food gets into the blood stream where it is recognised as alien and attacked, leading to food intolerances and allergies.
* Pathogen damage to the gut wall is the precursor to bowel cancers.
* Pathogens lead to an overproduction of mucous on the gut wall. This leads to putrefaction, toxin production and illness such as ADHD, autism, and other neurological illnesses in children, and mental ailments such as depression in adults!
* Leaky gut syndrome leads to skin problems e.g. eczema.
* It also leads to heart disease as the walls of the blood vessels get damaged and plaque settles in the damaged spots.
- Most surprisingly they modulate the immune system. About 85% of immunity resides in the gut, so an unhealthy gut leads to a depressed immunity.
One of the ways in which this happens is that an imbalance occurs between two limbs of the immune system, called TH1 and TH2.When the TH1 system is not functioning properly the TH2 overreacts, and all the allergic responses develop e.g. eczema, asthma, psoriasis, arthritis etc..
There’s a point in there than needs greater emphasis. “About 85% of immunity resides in the gut”. It has been said that the key to general health is a healthy intestine.
The crucial thing is to ensure that your system is fully populated with bacteria, and to maintain the optimal balance between the “good” ones and the “bad” ones – about 85% good to 15% bad.
Put another way, probiotics are essential for our health.
For some people it starts at birth – in some cases, even before birth. Contraceptive pills have been associated with the rise in childhood disorders because they cause an imbalance in the bacterial flora of the mother. So, when the babies arrive, they do not get the right intestinal flora from their mothers.
Why is this? The womb is free of bacteria, but in normal childbirth the infant is virtually bathed in its mother's bacteria as it is born. That is how the baby's intestines get colonised initially.
The problem is even worse when babies are born by Caesarean section. Caesarean births have to be conducted under clinically sterile conditions, and the child does not get this bacterial baptism. Babies need to be ‘populated’ by the mother’s flora during birth and breast feeding, so if the mothers do not breast feed or are themselves lacking in the good bacteria their children are too. (Bottle feeding has nothing to recommend it!)
Then, of course, bacteria are living organisms – like everything else, they die, and if they are not replaced their numbers are depleted. The modern diet, and particularly the western diet, is not particularly helpful here. In former times pickled and fermented foods were common, and this is still true of some societies. Yoghurt and other forms of fermented milk were regular accompaniments to meals, and meals themselves were often of spiced or pickled fermentations of various foodstuffs – sauerkraut for example. These fermented foods are good sources of probiotics.
With refrigeration, pasteurization, sterilization and other forms of “hygienic” food processing, together with the chlorination of water, the intake of “good” bacteria from natural sources has diminished greatly.
Nor has it been helped by the current hype about antibacterial soaps, dishwashing liquids and even laundry powders. Actually, the more sterile our environment, the less we replenish our necessary stock of “good” bacteria, and the more vulnerable we are to the baddies, and the more important ongoing supplementation with probiotics becomes.
Above all, the antibiotics that are so commonly prescribed for even minor ailments hammer all our internal bacteria indiscriminately, taking out the good along with the bad.
We are sometimes advised to take yoghurt or some kind of counter-agent when we are on antibiotics, but that is seldom sufficient and it can take up to two months for our systems to recover, giving the pathogens plenty of time to take hold. Repeat prescriptions on most medicinal drugs have a similar effect.
Then there are the usual suspects: prolonged stress, a poor (high fat, low roughage) diet, alcohol, smoking, too much sugar, exposure to pollution and irradiation, advancing age. Dental work introduces chemicals that knock out internal bacteria, and gastrointestinal diseases such as cholera do great damage.
Recognising all of this, health scientists have realized the importance of taking “probiotics”. Quite simply, this means having an intake of “good” bacteria to keep up the numbers and maintain the right balance.
And, because our sterilized environments and processed food diets have reduced their numbers in our regular diet, it has become necessary to supplement that diet.
Currently experts think it is likely that we all have compromised systems and an inadequate intake of good bacteria. They therefore believe that every one of us should be boosting this intake with probiotic supplements.
I may well be that "a probiotic a day keeps the doctor away"!
If you look at the ways in which the good bacteria help us, you will see why probiotics will make you not only feel better but actually be in better health.
As with all naturally-based food supplements, the tablet or capsule that we swallow is actually nothing more that an extra bit of a normal and essential foodstuff that has been lost from our modern diet.
You do need to ensure that any probiotic that you choose to take has certain features, most notably that it can survive the journey through the stomach and reach the intestines where it functions. Also, it must contain the correct sort of bacteria in very large numbers (billions).
Just to wrap this up, here are two checklists: some of the results of an unhealthy gut (in addition to a rumbling tum) and some of the known benefits of probiotics.
Some results of an unhealthy gut
* Inflammatory bowel diseases including irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, ulcers and chronic stomach inflammation, leaky gut syndrome (which results in a faulty immune system) and even lactose intolerance.
* Constipation and diarrhoea.
* Problems with post-surgical infections.
* A variety of inflammatory conditions including multiple sclerosis, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
* Various infections e.g. urinary and vaginal tract infections, stomach infections and respiratory infections. The latter are particularly found in children who frequent crèches and other day care facilities.
* Various skin problems including eczema, acne and other infections.
* There seems to be an association between an unhealthy gut and behavioural problems, ADHD, autism in children and depression in adults.
* Tooth and gum problems.
Some of the benefits of probiotics
The list of benefits is long, and seems to be growing all the time. Here are some of them:
* Better digestion and absorption of nutrients, especially proteins and fats.
* Digestion of lactose, so reducing risk of lactose intolerance.
* Probiotics reduce gas, bloating, indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome.
* They help with cleaning of the intestinal tract, improve the elimination of toxic waste, and reduce halitosis and body odour.
* They help normalise bowel function and maintain a healthy ‘transit time’ i.e prevent both constipation and diarrhoea.
* Probiotics produce important vitamins, enzymes and other essential nutrients e.g. Vitamin B (especially folic acid, B12 and biotin), Vitamin K, lactase, and fatty acids within the intestinal tract. They act like portable mini factories.
* They Promote mineral absorption, especially calcium, which is notoriously difficult to absorb.
* They strengthen the immune system. Probiotics stimulate the Th-2 immune system, improve antibody formation, reduce allergic responses.
* Support a healthy inflammatory response.
* They alleviate allergies. They promote the healing of a ‘leaky gut’ which leads to allergies, and even bowel cancer.
* They alleviate systemic candida infections.
* They alleviate troublesome conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia.
* Probiotics help maintain a slightly acidic environment on the bowel wall (producing lactic acid) – this keeps disease-causing bacteria at bay.
* They produce lactoferrin – iron binding protein which improves assimilation of iron from the diet.
* Probiotics play an important role in fighting viruses and parasites, yeast and fungal infections.
Patrick Holford states that: “Infectious agents are all around us. Whether or not you succumb to them is determined not only by your exposure but by the balance of bacteria.
The reason for this is that beneficial bacteria a) consume the nutrients that would feed the bad guys, b) block receptor sites that harmful bacteria latch on to cause an infection c) they produce lactic acid and hydrogen peroxide, and others to stop harmful bacteria from growing.
* Help to lower cholesterol.
* Reduce eczema, improves skin (acne, eczema, psoriasis).
* Probiotics play a role in the maturation of children. The bbsence of healthy intestinal flora may delay development.
* They reduce frequency of colds and flu.
* Probiotics may stimulate alpha-interferon production. This modulates the immune response.
* They reduce incidence of vaginal and urinary tract infections.
* Help with ulcers.
* Help with tooth decay and gum disease.
* Reduce the incidence of recurrent ear infections.
* Reduce the incidence of recurrent bladder infection.* May prevent premature labour.
As time goes on it seems likely that probiotics will be found to be
vital for every aspect of our health and wellbeing. And come to think of
it, this is not surprising - our development has been linked to a
healthy balance of bacteria since time immemorial.
Probiotics are important in every phase of life, from birth onwards. You may want to refer back to our pages on Health Foundations.