Why We Need Beneficial Bacteria
More than 400 different types of bacteria live in the normal human gastrointestinal (GI) tract. These beneficial, or friendly, bacteria play a critical role in keeping the body healthy. They aid in the digestion and absorption of nutrients, protect the intestinal wall, are important factors in the immune system, and prevent an overgrowth of harmful bacteria or other microorganisms that cause illness. For example, Candida albicans, a yeast, is normally present in small numbers in the GI tract without causing harm because it is kept under control by the friendly Lactobacillus bacteria. If the number of Lactobacillus in the gut is significantly depleted, the Candida can become overgrown and spread throughout the body, potentially causing a serious systemic infection.
The normal balance of beneficial bacteria in the GI tract can be disrupted by an infection of harmful bacteria, fungi, parasites or yeast, or by taking antibiotics, which will kill the beneficial intestinal flora along with the harmful ones.
Once the intestinal bacteria become unbalanced, numerous problems can arise. Signs that the intestinal bacteria are out of balance include bad breath, frequent colds, indigestion, diarrhea or other digestive problems.
Health Benefits of Probiotics
Probiotics are living microorganisms, usually bacteria such as Bifidobacterium or Lactobacillus, which are of the same type that are naturally found in a healthy digestive system. They are used to supplement or re-colonize the gut when the normal bacteria have been depleted by a course of antibiotics, or the natural balance has otherwise been thrown off.
Research indicates that treatment with probiotics can help with a variety of conditions, including diarrhea caused by viral infections, urinary tract infections, vaginal infections in women, irritable bowel syndrome, bacterial infections of the intestinal tract, and skin conditions such as eczema in children. There is also evidence that probiotics may decrease the reappearance of bladder cancer.
Probiotic Supplements and Foods
Probiotics can be obtained from foods or supplements. Probiotic supplements are available as capsules, powders or tablets. The supplements contain high concentrations of living, freeze-dried probiotic bacteria. Foods that contain probiotic bacteria are usually fermented. Some examples of probiotic foods include:
* Dairy products such as kefir, buttermilk and acidophilus yogurt
* Miso and tempeh, which are made from fermented soy beans
* Kim chi, a spicy Korean food made from fermented cabbage
* Sauerkraut and pickles; note that in order to be probiotic, the sauerkraut and pickles must be actually fermented, not just soaked in vinegar to acquire a sour taste.
This information is for educational purposes only. If you have a health concern, see your health care professional.