Why are probiotics beneficial?
Probiotics, translated “for life”, refer to bacteria in the intestine considered beneficial to health. Two of the most important healthful bacteria are Lactobacillus acidophilus (specific to the small intestine) and Bifidobacterium bifidum (specific to the large intestine), but there are many other organisms to keep in mind. It is important to note that you have more bacteria in and on you than you have cells in your body and that the bacteria in your digestive tract weigh approximately 3lbs. Probiotics are often referred to as the “first line of defense” when it comes to your immune system – when you go into battle it is important to have a cross section of many bacteria versus an army made up of two types of soldiers. While there are a number of excellent companies providing high quality probiotic products, it is difficult to sort through all the manufacturer’s claims of superiority, and some products have been shown to contain no active L. acidophilus. As such, see a Naturopathic Doctor who can recommend a quality product to you.
The intestinal flora plays a major role in the health of the host (you!). The intestinal flora is intimately involved in the host’s nutritional status and affects immune system function, cholesterol metabolism, carcinogenesis, toxin load and aging. Due to the importance of L. acidophilus and B. bifidum to human health, probiotic supplements can be used to promote overall good health.
Acidophilus bacteria perform many essential functions. They produce the enzyme lactase, required for the digestion of lactose (milk sugar) and aid in the digestion of other nutrients as well. Some strains fight undesirable microorganisms that invade their territory, aid in the destruction of dangerous disease causing bacteria by producing natural antibiotics and help reduce the levels of low density lipoproteins, the so-called “bad cholesterol”. When acidophilus colonies are present in sufficient strength, they inhibit the proliferation of Candida albicans, a fungal organism (yeast) that can cause a host of problems.
Bifidobacterium produce lactic and other acids that increase the acidity of the region they inhabit and make the area less hospitable to dangerous bacteria. They prevent harmful bacteria from converting compounds known as nitrates (ingested in food or water) into related compounds called nitrites. Nitrites in turn can be converted into nitrosamines, which are known cancer-causing agents. When present in sufficient numbers, bifidobacterium prevent disease-causing bacteria and fungi from forming colonies in their territory. Bifidobacterium also aid in the production of B vitamins and assist in the dietary management of certain liver conditions.
The body can lose its store of friendly bacteria in many ways. For example, if you must take antibiotics, these drugs not only destroy harmful bacteria, but kill off the essential bacteria as well. Birth control pills, certain over the counter drugs, the chlorine and fluorine in tap water, environmental pollutants, mental and physical stress, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, tobacco and alcohol also reduce the normal levels of beneficial bacteria. Even just getting older causes a loss of the friendly bacteria you need to stay healthy.
Because friendly bacteria have the astonishing ability to rid the body of disease causing bacteria before then can create a problem, probiotic supplements have become a virtual necessity today.
Sources: Textbook of Natural Medicine page 893-7; Smart Medicine for Healthier Living pg 60