By: Clifford Sonnie, M.D.
One of the most important systems in our bodies is the gastrointestinal system. I think from one end to the other it is the most important. The gut breaks down everything we eat to a form that we can use throughout our bodies but it also is the pathway by which we get rid of what we don’t need. It is also the site of three quarters of all the cells that make up our immune system. When the gut isn’t working right, nothing works and we are not happy campers.
I would like to talk about the bacteria that live in the gut. They live along with us and without them we could not survive. In fact all the bacteria in our intestinal tract weighs about three pounds. These bacteria are called probiotics which means “for life”.
Ok, what do they do? They help the body break down carbohydrates. Without them many foods including sugars aren’t broken down and we lose a source of nutrients and energy. They also produce some of the B vitamins as well as producing vitamin K. They also keep “bad” bacteria in check. Remember we are exposed to bacteria that can make us sick every day. It is part of the duty of probiotics to essentially starve the bad bacteria out of existence. There are usually many more good guys than bad to the tune of 10:1. They also help the immune system distinguish those things that can harm us and those things that cannot. A breakdown in this system is in my opinion the source of many sensitivities or allergies that we experience. It is also one of the underlying factors in the development of the many autoimmune disorders where your body doesn’t recognize “self” and attacks us. Lastly they help with inflammatory bowel disease, recurrent infections in children and adults and in chronic or acute diarrhea. (Montezuma’s revenge can be prevented and eliminated with enough probiotics).
Where do they come from? Well, you’ve had them since birth. Mom gave us some during gestation and breast milk is a huge source. Our diet too supplies these healthy friends in uncooked fruits and vegetables. Cooking will enhance flavor and kill bad bacteria but it will also kill good bacteria. Some dairy products are also good sources of probiotics. No this does not include pasteurized milk products. Yogurt today starts with live cultures but after pasteurization they are all dead or inactive. Yet the FDA allows the manufacturer to continue to advertize that they are in there. Fortunately a viable source does include unpasteurized fermented foods. Even back during Abraham’s time of the Old Testament, he owed his longevity to eating fermented milk. In the 1500’s, disease was noted to be cured by eating yogurt (no not Dannons). There is a product out there called kefir. I won’t take time to explain it here but it can be an invaluable and inexpensive source of probiotics. Ask me about it if you see me because those who know me, know I would much rather supply anything we need by diet. Problem is, realistically, this can be easier said than done so we can if needed replenish them by supplements.
Unfortunately the use and at times the overuse of antibiotics and the over eating of processed foods, which help the “bad” bacteria flourish, decrease the number of good guys. Chlorinated water, pasteurization, adding preservatives to food, agricultural chemicals and pollution all contribute to the killing off of the good guys and the rise of the bad guys. (Sounds like a Schwarzenegger movie). So just like I have to reseed the lawn at times, we have to reseed the gut. Like I said, it is best to reseed it naturally with diet but sometimes we need a boost and probiotic supplements can be the answer. Now here is the interesting part. The gut wants to keep the same good guys around that it had since birth. So supplemental probiotics can either take up residence and stay forever or more often allow the original good guys to re-grow while the probiotics we took stands guard against the bad guys. Remember, all supplemental probiotics are not equal. There are as many strains out there as there are manufacturers of probiotics. First make sure they can survive stomach acid and are even capable of taking up residence of any kind in the gut. Call or Google the manufacturer and if they won’t give you details, don’t buy it.
Bottom line, I have found that most people will follow a combination of good foods and supplements rather that one or the other alone. Logistically and financially this is usually the better way too. Regardless, take the time to read the label, make sure the “practitioner” who recommends the probiotic is familiar with them and above all ask questions. After all, yes say it with me, the smart health care consumer is informed and aware.
Clifford M. Sonnie, M.D., M.P.H.