The Probiotic Prescription

Beneficial bacteria for healthy digestion and more.

| July/August 2006

If there was ever any doubt that modern life disrupts digestion, just look at the number of ads for heartburn remedies, laxatives and diarrhea relievers. The typical American diet, a lack of exercise, out-of-control stress levels and the sheer speed of life today can keep our stomachs in a constant state of turmoil. As a result, a growing number of Americans suffer from everyday maladies, like indigestion, flatulence and constipation, to more serious woes, like irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease.

But probiotics can fortify our defenses against these tummy troubles. Taken from the Greek word for “life,” probiotics are living beneficial bacteria that support digestion as well as vaginal and urinary tract health. Probiotics also promote the body’s overall immunity and increase the absorption of nutrients. Admittedly, eating live bugs may not sound terribly appealing. Yet a growing number of Americans are deliberately supplementing their diets with armies of these little critters to aid digestion and promote optimal health.

Bacterial Buddies: What Probiotics Do

Our gastrointestinal tracts are home to more than 400 different strains of bacteria that perform very important functions in the body — from the mouth all the way down to the rectum. But their best-known role in good health is the protection they offer against harmful bacteria, fungi and viruses. Probiotics produce organic compounds — including lactic acid, hydrogen peroxide and acetic acid — that increase the acidity in the intestines. This helps to prevent the “bad” bugs from reproducing. Probiotics also produce bacteriocin, natural antibiotics that kill harmful micro-organisms and enhance the immune system by boosting disease-fighting cells.

Unfortunately, a number of things can put the supply of beneficial bacteria in peril. Antibiotics are probably the biggest threat to our good bacteria. Antibiotics indiscriminately kill off bacteria — both the bad ones causing health problems and the good ones that help keep us healthy. As a result, antibiotic use — even on a short-term basis — can cause diarrhea or a pesky yeast infection.

Stress, birth control pills, a poor diet, chemical additives and environmental toxins also can destroy our friendly flora. When this happens, harmful bacteria can run rampant, multiplying like wildfire and ultimately causing disease. In fact, low levels of friendly bacteria have been linked to a number of digestive disorders, including constipation, diarrhea, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome. They’ve also been implicated in jock itch, vaginitis and yeast infections. And some natural health practitioners suspect waning levels of beneficial bacteria can contribute to gingivitis, psoriasis, eczema, migraines, urinary tract infections and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Little Bugs Fight Big Problems

The two most prevalent types of probiotic bacteria that live in the gut are Lactobacillus, found in the small intestines, and Bifidobacterium, which resides in the large intestines. Not only do these two types of bacteria favorably alter the microflora balance in the intestines, they also promote good digestion and may help ease the symptoms of chronic digestive disorders.

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