Why Everyone Needs Probiotics
There's a struggle going on in your body right now, and the participants are tireless, vigorous, and resourceful. It is a classic confrontation between two forces: good and bad. And in this case, it's between "good" or beneficial, friendly bacteria and "bad" or harmful, unfriendly bacteria. This struggle is based in your gastrointestinal tract, which covers a very large amount of territory: Stretched out, your intestinal lining covers about 300 square meters, or roughly the size of a tennis court. You are not the only one engaged in this battle. A similar one rages on in everyone regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, race, or shoe size, 24 hours a day, every day. You and your body can be the winners--or the losers--of the ongoing conflict only if you provide the friendly side with enough of the right reinforcements: Probiotics.
WHAT ARE PROBIOTICS?
Trillions of microorganisms live in your intestinal tract, or "gut," as it is commonly referred to and how we refer to it throughout this book. These beneficial flora are absolutely essential for health and well-being. If you are healthy, chances are your beneficial microorganisms are thriving as well. However, for reasons we discuss below, making sure that these friendly flora remain viable and balanced can be a challenge.
Probiotics (meaning "for life") can help you face that challenge. Probiotics are friendly, beneficial microorganisms--mainly bacteria--that work with the body and help maintain the delicate balance between the beneficial flora and bad bacteria that is necessary for health and well-being. When the balance tips too far in the direction of the bad bacteria, which happens frequently, a wide spectrum of symptoms and diseases can result--everything from recurring bouts of diarrhea to urinary tract infections to fatigue and muscle pain. To prevent illness as well as treat conditions associated with an imbalance between these types of bacteria, more and more health professionals and consumers are turning to probiotics, which can be found both in supplements and in a variety of foods.
I'm going to take a moment here to share a personal story about the power of probiotics because it's a tale with which many people can identify. How many times in your life have you been floored by the flu? You know the symptoms: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, aches, and generally feeling lousy. Like the zit that erupts on your face the day you have an important date or need to give a big presentation, the flu often appears at very inconvenient times. So, when I woke up on the morning of the big annual chili cookoff competition that my family sponsorsevery year at our house and I was overwhelmed by nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever, I knew I was in trouble. I had approximately eight hours to get better, before hordes of people would appear on my doorstep carrying steaming crockpots full of spicy, hot chili.
Fortunately, I knew what I had to do: I immediately took 2.5 billion CFUs (colony-forming units--the number of viable cells in a dose) of five species of probiotics and went to bed. Then every two hours for the next eight hours, I took 2.5 billion CFUs of probiotics and continued to rest. By the time the first chili competitors rang my doorbell at 5 PM, I was free of symptoms: no more nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or fever. However, I thought better of diving headfirst into the waiting bowls of chili, so when the competition heated up a few hours later, I ate conservatively, just sampling many different chilis. Throughout that night and the next day, I continued to take about 2.5 billion CFUs of probiotics every six to eight hours. Within seven to eight hours of experiencing my first flu symptoms, I was not only symptom-free, but felt like my old self.
This is just one example of the power of probiotics. Since that chili adventure, I have used this probiotic treatment approach several more times, and it has worked every time. Without getting into a detailed discussion of how and why probiotics work--which we do in chapter 2 and in part two of this book--here we want to say that, when you provide probiotics to your gut--in food and/or supplements--your goal is to tilt the balance of bacteria highly in favor of the good guys, so they can effectively inhibit the growth and development of unfriendly bacterial strains and prevent other pathogens from staking a claim in the body.
Why is this balance so hard to maintain? A quick look at modern society and lifestyles provides the answer. Literally dozens of factorsmake it difficult to maintain the critical balance between beneficial and harmful bacteria. Poor food choices, use of antibiotics and other drugs, emotional stress, lack of sleep, environmental influences--all of these factors and more jeopardize the balance in the intestinal flora, resulting in a reduction of beneficial bacteria and opening the door for bad bacteria and other disease-causing substances (pathogens) to take over and cause infection, illness, and disease. Bad bacteria are also very opportunistic, prime examples of the old adage, "give an inch, take a mile." If the environment in your gut is even mildly favorable to bad bacteria, they will grow and proliferate with a vengeance.
The challenge, then, is to provide your body with plenty of friendly bacteria to thwart the actions of the bad bacteria and other pathogens, and to restore a healthy balance in your gut.
MORE ABOUT THE GUT
By the time you finish this book--or perhaps even this chapter--you should have a newfound appreciation for your gut and all the complex and health-maintaining activities that go on there. We hope to help you understand that what happens in your gut significantly impacts every cell, tissue, and organ system in your body.
The Glorious Gut
The intestinal tract is a remarkable organ that is coated with both friendly and unfriendly microorganisms which, together with the actual cell lining of the gut, serve both as a protective barrier and a filtering and distribution point. When the gut is healthy, it successfully filters out and eliminates damaging substances such as unfriendly bacteria, toxins, chemicals, and other waste products, and prevents themfrom being absorbed and carried throughout the body. At the same time, the gut absorbs and helps distribute essential ingredients, such as nutrients from food and water, and sends them to the cells in the body that need them.
Thus, the gut has a great deal of control over what happens throughout your body, just like the brain in your head controls your bodily functions. This association between gut and brain is more than coincidence, it's a physical reality.
The Brain-Gut Axis
In fact, scientists have found that a network of chemical and electrical signals continuously pass between the central nervous system (brain) and the gastrointestinal system. They call this exchange pathway the brain-gut axis, and some experts refer to the gut as the second brain. This intimate relationship between your cerebral brain and your gut brain is one reason why what happens in your gut has such an effect on the rest of the body.
The truth is, most people are pretty hard on their second brain. For example, think about your diet. Do you consume processed foods, fried foods, sugar, alcohol? How about foods that contain pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, steroids, artificial colors, preservatives, and flavorings? These dietary assaults on your gut, and many other factors (discussed below), can cause the bacterial flora in your gut to go out of balance.
Once the beneficial flora decline in number, damaging substances gain the upper hand and your health suffers: Your gut becomes damaged and inflamed, toxins get into your bloodstream and cause distressing symptoms, nutritional deficiencies occur, and a host of other health conditions can result.
That's why the basis of any health or healing plan must focus lots of attention on your gut. Exactly what makes the gut so important?
The Gut at Work
The intestinal tract is the distribution point for nutrients throughout your body. If your distribution center isn't working properly, the nutrients don't get sent to their required destinations. What would happen if the sorting system at your local post office went on the blink, half the employees didn't show up for work, and the trucks broke down? The mail would enter the post office, but it couldn't be sorted or distributed, and you wouldn't get your mail. Your gut works in a similar way: You can put food and nutrients into your body, but if your gut isn't healthy enough to support and handle them, they will not get processed and distributed throughout your body.
The colon is the main channel for bad bacteria, medication residues, parasites, and other toxins and waste to leave the body. It is essential that these materials leave the body regularly and as completely as possible. Yet, poor dietary habits and lifestyle practices cause many people to suffer from incomplete elimination and to retain fecal matter much longer--even years--and in great quantities in their intestinal tract. Not only does old fecal matter offer a perfect environment in which bad bacteria can breed and grow, it also causes the walls of the colon to expand and press on other organs in the abdominal cavity, ultimately resulting in conditions such as polyps, colon cancer, diverticulosis, and Crohn's disease.
Hardened fecal matter on the walls of the colon also make it very difficult for you to absorb any nutrients from your food. This can result in nutritional deficiencies. In fact, the whole relationship between health, probiotics, incomplete elimination, and residual fecal matter is so important that we address it in more detail in chapter 4, where you can learn how to cultivate healthy bowel habits that will enhance your overall health and vitality.
If you consume probiotics every day, as food and/or supplements,you can help maintain the proper balance of bacterial flora in the gut and thus enjoy better health and vitality. We will explore the unique relationship between beneficial bacteria and health in each of the chapters in part two, where we talk about how probiotics can help specific symptoms and medical conditions.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU NEED PROBIOTICS?
I like to think about good and bad bacteria and the gut in terms of mosquitoes and swamps. If you were to stand in a swamp (i.e., a gut that is swarming with bad bacteria), you could swat at the great hordes of swarming mosquitoes all day with a fly swatter and you would never kill an appreciable number, as long as the bugs have the swamp in which to reproduce and grow. If you were to drain the swamp, you would remove the mosquitoes' resource for life, and they would die. Similarly, if you were to scoop up a bottle full of mosquitoes and release them in a pristine, dry environment in which there were no bodies of water where the mosquitoes could breed and reproduce, they would die.
Thus you have a choice: Your gut can be a nasty swamp and a breeding ground for unfriendly bacteria and other pathogens, which places you at constant risk of an extensive range of illnesses and diseases; or you can drain the swamp--chase out all those nasty bacteria--and provide a friendly, pristine environment that supports and nurtures beneficial bacteria, good health, and vitality.
The Impact of Lifestyle
One important reason why you need to keep replenishing your beneficial bacteria levels is that outside forces--things you do every day--areconstantly causing their numbers to be reduced. Decades of research by experts around the world, including the groundbreaking work of Dr. Khem Shahani, arguably the foremost authority on probiotics, have shown that an imbalance between friendly and unfriendly bacteria in the gut can be caused or worsened by unwise lifestyle choices, including a poor diet, and environmental factors.
Unfortunately, these lifestyle choices and environmental factors have become status quo for many people. I can't tell you how many people have come to me complaining of fatigue, gastrointestinal problems, recurring infections, and other health issues, and when I question them about their lifestyle habits I see that they are "living their problem": They're eating fast food, lots of sugar and sugary foods, and foods that contain hormones, antibiotics, steroids, artificial colors and preservatives, and other contaminants. They don't get enough sleep and they don't manage their stress well. Many women tell me they are taking birth control pills and that they have a history of taking antibiotics, often for urinary tract or yeast infections. And without fail, everyone is exposed to environmental stressors, including secondhand smoke, greenhouse gases, chlorinated and/or fluoridated water, and household and workplace chemicals. The good news is that many of the items I've just listed involve choices, which means you have the power to change them. People can do much to make positive changes in their lives while adding probiotics to the picture.
While keeping the lifestyle choices and environmental factors in mind, look at the following statements about health and well-being. How many are true about you?
• Frequent tension headache and/or migraine are a problem for me.
• It's common for me to wake up tired and to feel tired all day long.
• I experience bouts of constipation and/or diarrhea.
• I often experience bloating and/or gas.
• I have had candida (yeast) infections.
• I occasionally or frequently get urinary tract infections.
• My skin is often itchy, and/or I have psoriasis, eczema, acne, or rash.
• I experience frequent colds and/or flu.
• I often get anxious and/or depressed.
• I experience some memory problems.
• I have asthma and/or nasal allergies.
• No matter how hard I try, I have trouble losing weight.
• My cholesterol is high.
• I frequently get cold sores.
• I'm experiencing symptoms of perimenopause, menopause, or PMS.
• I have chronic bad breath.
The vast majority of people say yes to three or more of these statements, and many find that more than half of the statements are true for them. This is not unusual. Studies show that these complaints, as well as many diseases and other medical conditions, are associated with an imbalance (or "dysbiosis") between good and bad bacteria in the gut. These conditions include bowel disorders (e.g., irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease, colitis, inflammatory bowel disease), migraine, chronic fatigue syndrome, cancer, chronic inflammation, psoriasis, eczema, fibromyalgia, acne, and autoimmune disorders.
Probiotics and Antibiotics
Most people who are familiar with or who have heard about probiotics associate them with antibiotics, and in fact this is often the first way people are introduced to probiotics. This is a fortunate introduction,and one I want to explain here, because the relationship between antibiotics and probiotics is a good illustration of how the use of beneficial bacteria can enhance your health and well-being.
If you consider these two words--probiotics and antibiotics--you can readily see that they have something in common. Antibiotics are drugs that are prescribed to destroy life--the life of disease-causing bacteria in the body--and in many cases these drugs do this quite well and save many lives and relieve much suffering in the process. Probiotics promote or give life, and they do a very admirable job, as you will learn throughout this book. Yet, unlike probiotics, antibiotics also have a sinister side: Not only do they destroy bad bacteria, but they destroy beneficial bacteria as well. And even though this is a well-known medical fact, antibiotics continue to be abused and misused on a large scale.
For example, despite the fact that antibiotics are not effective against viruses such as the common cold and flu, these drugs are still being prescribed for viral conditions, resulting in widespread antibiotic resistance and thus placing people's health in jeopardy. One recommendation in such cases, as my experience with the flu and my chili adventure illustrates, is to avoid antibiotics and instead take probiotics.
When antibiotics are medically indicated for a bacterial infection such as bacterial pneumonia or a wound infection, then it is strongly recommended that people take a probiotic supplement before, during, and/or after a course of antibiotics to help restore the healthy bacteria in their gut. We'll talk more about the use of antibiotics and probiotics in chapter 8. For now, however, we just want to let you know that although it is very important to take probiotics while you are also using antibiotics, to help offset the damage caused by the drugs, it is by no means the only way you can harness the power of these beneficial microorganisms in your life.
WHAT CAN PROBIOTICS DO FOR YOU?
The organisms in probiotics may be microscopic, but they can take on some very big roles. Some people consider them to be like an insurance policy: Use of probiotics allows them to ward off potential infections and other health problems and provides them with a more healthy foundation.
"I feel like I have a health-care policy in force, just in case something does happen," explains Vivian, a forty-nine-year-old interior designer, "plus, using probiotics regularly offers me peace of mind."
Millions of people are like Vivian, and you may be among them: You don't have any pressing health issues or symptoms--perhaps you experience an occasional headache or cold, infrequent bouts of constipation or diarrhea, but nothing serious--but your diet could be much better. You're often under pressure at work and like everyone else, you can't escape the greenhouse gases in the air you breathe. For you, a simple plan to include probiotics in your diet and/or with supplements is a wise way to safeguard your health.
Or you may be among the growing number of parents who are turning to probiotics and their helpers as a way to protect, enhance, and improve the health and well-being of their infants and children. This is an area that I find especially rewarding and a topic I want to discuss right up front because it is so important to so many people.
Probiotics and Children
People often wonder if probiotics are recommended for infants and children, and the answer is a resounding Yes! In fact, in chapters 5 and 6 especially, which explore gastrointestinal problems and allergies and asthma respectively, you'll learn just how critical probiotics can be inthe treatment and prevention of life-threatening diarrhea and respiratory conditions, including asthma, that affect a growing number of our children.
I talk to a great number of mothers of infants who contact me because their children are colicky or are having continuous bouts of green diarrhea. I explain to them that the intestinal tract of infants cannot mature without an adequate population of beneficial bacteria. Every child is born with a clean "slate": a sterile intestinal tract. Microorganisms begin to move in and multiply as soon as the infant is born. In fact, infants tend to swallow some vaginal fluid at delivery, and because vaginal bacteria and intestinal bacteria are similar, an infant's bacterial flora will generally be similar to that of his or her mother. Thus, if the mother's intestinal flora is unbalanced, that imbalance is passed along to the infant as well. Infants who are delivered via cesarean section are not exposed to the mother's vaginal fluids and often acquire bacterial flora that is present in the delivery room or hospital environment.
The main source of bacteria that eventually colonize the gut, however, is food. Infants who are breast-fed enjoy the many benefits of colostrum (the fluid that is secreted from the mother's breast before the breast milk appears) and breast milk. These wonder foods of nature contain antibodies, antiviral substances, vitamins, prebiotics (which we talk about in detail in chapter 3), and other essential ingredients that help prepare the infant's gut and immune system for life's challenges. Bifidobacteria species are the predominant good bacteria in breast-fed infants, and they typically multiply rapidly and appear in the feces of infants within a few days of birth. In infants who are given formula, other bacteria, including clostridia, bacteroides, streptococci, as well as Bifidobacteria appear. The fewer number of Bifidobacteria species in formula-fed infants is one of the main reasons why these children tendto experience significantly more episodes of diarrhea, ear infections, and other common health problems than do breast-fed infants.
Attaining and maintaining a healthy balance of friendly and unfriendly bacteria in the gut is critically important in infants and children. For example, diarrhea can be life-threatening to an infant or very young child, and so, restoring a healthy balance of beneficial bacteria is a crucial part of the treatment and recovery process. Researchers have also found that some allergies originate in childhood among children who have a deficiency of friendly bacteria, which means they are more likely to have an underdeveloped gastrointestinal tract and a less than robust immune system as adults.
Probiotics for All
You may be one of tens of millions of Americans who has an annoying, chronic, or significant health challenge that can be relieved, managed, or eliminated through use of probiotics. Are you among the nearly 45 million Americans who, according to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders, suffers with irritable bowel syndrome? Or are you one of the 75 percent of adult women who will suffer with at least one, and often more, episodes of vaginal candidiasis? Is your child among the 9 million U.S. youngsters under age eighteen who has been diagnosed with asthma? Are you or other family members having trouble losing weight and keeping it off?
Probiotics are especially important for those who can't vocalize a "yes" to any of these statements--infants and very young children--who often fall victim to diarrhea and other gastrointestinal problems, as we mentioned above. And for those who share their homes with four-legged companions, probiotics can be beneficial for many canine and feline ailments as well. (Yes, we talk about probiotics for pets in chapter 12.)
Probiotics can play a crucial role in all of the situations mentioned here, and more. If it sounds like probiotics are some kind of "miracle" substance that's too good to be true, let me assure you that that is not the case.
Beneficial bacteria occur naturally in the body, but they need constant support and restoration. Providing the body with an adequate and reliable supply of good bacteria in the form of probiotics is not magic, it is wise behavior, scientifically proven to work to provide optimum health. And that's the kind of behavior we encourage in this book.
Our hope is that you will embrace the use of probiotics not only for yourself, but for your entire family, including your children. In fact, helping to ensure your children have a healthy balance of beneficial bacteria in their gut now is one of the best and easiest ways to arm them against illness and disease, both now and in their future years.
HOW TO USE THIS BOOK
This book is divided into two parts. Part one consists of three chapters, including this one, in which we introduce you to the world of probiotics and their health-balancing, restorative powers. Many people have heard the word "probiotics," but have little or no idea what they are, how they work, or, more important, the many ways they can improve their health and restore a higher quality of life. Therefore, these few chapters can help you understand and appreciate the power of these microorganisms, the many different types of beneficial bacteria that are available in both supplement form and in foods, how easy it is to incorporate them into your lifestyle, and how you can enhance their performance when they are combined with selected "little helpers," all natural prebiotics and enzymes.
Part two presents more than a dozen different easy-to-follow probiotic programs. Each one addresses a different health challenge that you can remedy through the use of probiotic supplements and/or selected foods and probiotic helpers. Each chapter begins with an overview of the medical condition(s) or health problem(s), including a checklist, so you can better identify your signs and symptoms. The one exception to this is chapter 4, which presents a probiotic program that is for anyone who doesn't have a specific ailment but who wants to enhance their overall health, experience more energy, and enjoy a better quality of life. This basic, core probiotic program is virtually for everyone and, like all the other programs in part two it is easy to follow.
In 1996, the World Health Report stated that "too few new drugs are being developed to replace those that have lost their effectiveness. In the race for supremacy, microbes are sprinting ahead." Although drugs do have their place in the fight against microbes and in dealing with the symptoms of disease, in many cases what we need are not more drugs, but making sure that people are getting enough probiotics in their lives, whether through their food or supplements or both. This book shows you how to make probiotics work for you.
THE WONDER OF PROBIOTICS. Copyright © 2007 by Lynn Sonberg Book Associates.