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Probiotics and your GUT!!!!

Posted by on Apr. 8, 2009 at 10:54 PM
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By contrast, impaired or imbalanced body flora - including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoans - are implicated in heart disease, allergies and asthma, skin disorders, obesity, IBS and digestive problems, urinary tract infections, certain cancers, Alzheimer's and much more - both acute conditions and chronic diseases. Since disease-causing bugs in the gut must compete with the "normal" microbes already in residence, daily probiotic use can be an effective preventative and therapeutic measure to help us keep the balance of intestinal flora tipped toward the positive side.

The truth is that feeling well depends on keeping your friendly bacteria happy - think how sick you feel when unfriendly microorganisms get the upper hand with a case of food poisoning, Montezuma's revenge, or intestinal flu. You can keep this community thriving with a good diet, good health habits, and supplementing with probiotics. Many dairy manufacturers and other food industries are now advertising probiotic-enhanced "functional" foods, and natural food stores carry several varieties of probiotics. But the choices can be overwhelming when looking for the best probiotic - so let's talk about what you need to know.

The flora in your GI tract - it's a jungle in there!

Imagine that your mouth, large intestines, colon, respiratory system, skin and vagina are all a lush organic garden, filled with exotic plants. Provided with adequate nutrients, water, beneficial insects and soil microbes, your garden flourishes. Even when disease or pests present themselves, your garden gate is strong and the bad guys are easily repelled. But what happens when conditions are suboptimal, or the ground is razed? Your prized specimens weaken and succumb, pests and weeds take hold, and the whole delicate ecosystem is overrun. Of course, this is just a metaphor for what happens any time you get an infection, become ill, take antibiotics, undergo hospitalization or surgery, travel, get run-down, or find you're just too busy to eat right and take care of yourself.

At last count, scientists estimate that around 750 trillion bacteria, yeast and other microorganisms inhabit a healthy woman's body. They make up three to five pounds of your total body weight, and their genes are estimated to outnumber your own by about a hundredfold! In the buzzing metropolis of your GI tract, there is ample surface area for these microbes to colonize, but competition for real estate is high. Through a process of "competitive exclusion," how you treat your body determines which bacteria get residence - good, bad or indifferent.

Of the trillions of microbes in your body, researchers have identified some - but by no means all - of the friendly flora species. Our knowledge about the native microbial inhabitants of our bodies is beginning to explode, thanks to new tools developed in the branch of molecular biology known as metagenomics. Scientists estimate we've made the acquaintance of a mere 1-2% of our full complement of microflora! Categorized by microbiologists through a complex process of culturing and DNA sequencing, essential players in the gut include Escherichia, Lactobacillus, and Bifidobacterium. Other common gut inhabitants include Bacteroides, Clostridium, Fusobacterium, Eubacterium, Streptococcusand certain yeast (Candida) strains.

What's truly amazing, though, is not only how many kinds of these tiny creatures are present, but how complex the differences among them are. As with all things in the living world, balance is more fundamental than numbers. Individual species can be both beneficial and detrimental, for example, depending on a number of factors aside from sheer numbers:  life stage; whether they've mutated into a beneficial or harmful strain (antibiotics impact this big time); location in your body; even which tinier microorganisms might be hyperparasitizing them!

This is the case with E. coli, Candida and strep. Regarding location in the body, for example, the fecal coliform E. coli "behaves itself" when it's in your intestines and colon, but causes infection once it gets into your urinary tract. (That's why it's so important to wipe front-to-back when using the bathroom!) Everyone needs a "little" yeast, too - Candida is common in most women's bodies, but as long as a neighboring yeast called Saccharomyces keeps residence too, it generally doesn't get out of hand. As for hyperparasites, a colony of E. coli itself can contract a tiny virus (called a bacterio-phage = "eats bacteria") and get wiped out. We are only just beginning to comprehend how complex the life within us can be!

Over the millennia, we've evolved a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship with our microflora. As long as we provide a hospitable environment, they remain as paying guests, helping digestion, metabolism, detoxification, and maintaining a balanced immunological response to potential allergens. As infants, our intestinal tract cannot mature efficiently without them. Many researchers believe that some allergies are rooted in a deficiency of friendly flora in childhood, resulting in an underdeveloped GI tract and compromised immune response.

Like most microbes, beneficial bacteria can be inhaled or acquired by touch, but more often than not they find their way into the body with what we eat. Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir, kim chee, tempeh and yogurt contain active cultures of beneficial bacteria. The first beneficial microbe in our gut (Bifidobacterium infantis) is introduced through our mother's breast milk during the initial days of life, helping us digest milk sugars. As we mature, other species, like Lactobacillus, colonize the intestines, colon and vagina.

All these microorganisms are sensitive to acidity (pH) levels, and prefer their environments warm and dark. They flourish when they get the right food and languish when they do not. What you eat early on in life influences which strains colonize your GI tract. Evidence suggests that a kind of unique microbial fingerprint is established in the early years of life that may reflect an individual's initial diet and birth culture. This begs the question of whether inherited food sensitivities, like gluten intolerance, are more the product of primary gut flora or genetics. Perhaps research will tell us more in the future.

Gut flora are also susceptible to sudden changes in their environment, and will die off in the millions when conditions aren't right. Illness, stress, and medication use affect the balance of microorganisms, as well as the speed of peristalsis (the wave-like action of the digestive system). But because gut flora get their food by breaking down what we eat, diet is the most important factor.

Beneficial bacteria, digestion and nutrition - a dynamic partnership

Within the gut community and beyond, each type of flora has a specific DNA code that defines its mechanisms of action. Individual strains inhabit certain sections of the GI tract and target certain sugars, proteins or fats for digestion. Scientists have only decoded about 10% of friendly gut flora, but even these preliminary data prove how dependent we are on them.

Many species of beneficial bacteria - such as Lactobacillus bulgaricus and L. thermophilus, which are used in fermenting yogurt, as well as the near-ubiquitous E. coli - manufacture B vitamins and vitamin K. They also break otherwise indigestible carbohydrates down into short-chain fatty acids, providing us with energy and nutrients. Other forms of bacteria digest proteins, freeing up their amino acids for absorption. And some target the digestion and storage of fat, helping us normalize our cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Acidophilus and Bifidobacterium strains increase the bioavailability of minerals that need short-chain fatty acids for optimal absorption, such as magnesium, iron, copper and manganese.

Good intestinal flora help prevent bloating, gas, and yeast overgrowth by controlling the pH (acidity versus alkalinity) level of the intestines through production of lactic acid. The main bacterial phyla in the colon, Bacteroides and Firmicutes, and the ancient, single-celled organisms called Archaea, all consume hydrogen, generate methane, and regulate bowel movements. In babies, these helpful organisms stem diaper rash, diarrhea, and colic, as well as preventing allergies.

Gut flora and immunity

Beneficial bacteria reinforce the mucosal barrier of the intestines, which is associated with the gut-associated lymph tissue (GALT), helping to prevent pathogens, toxins and allergens from gaining access to the rest of the body. In this way, their presence "teaches" the immune system which allergens and toxins are tolerable and which need to be disposed of.

Some bacteria have a stimulating effect on the immune system, by increasing T-cell counts, for example. In a recent study reported by the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, the number of certain T-lymphocytes that target cytotoxins (T2, T3 and T4) jumped by more than 28% in healthy young female test subjects after they ate conventional yogurt daily for one month.

Other good bacteria produce natural antibiotics and antifungals; for instance, Streptococcus salivarius manufactures an antiseptic that neutralizes the sulfur compounds responsible for bad breath (halitosis). Friendly flora also keep unfriendly bacteria in check by depriving them of nutrients and secreting acids (acetic, lactic, and formic) that create a hostile environment for pathogens.

Gut flora, hormones, and metabolism

Beneficial flora metabolize and recycle hormones, including estrogen, thyroid hormones, and phytoestrogens from food sources, which can help offset symptoms of menopause, PMS and perimenopause. In this way, they help maintain proper hormonal balance, and may protect bone and breast health as well. They also detoxify drugs and other potentially harmful compounds we put into our systems on purpose or by accident. There is evidence that some probiotics may have anti-tumor, anticancer effects by helping us metabolize specific food components (like antioxidants and flavonoids) into useable forms.


by on Apr. 8, 2009 at 10:54 PM
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