What are Probiotics and Why Do They Matter to Me?
By Ruth Anna Spooner
When you hear the word ‘bacteria,’ images of dirt, germs, and diseases probably pop into your head. Perhaps you are already reaching for the anti-bacterial hand sanitizer next to your computer. You know from long experience that many types of bacteria are indeed harmful to us. But not all bacteria are enemies, however. In fact, some types of bacteria—like the ones found in your intestines—are not only “friendly” bacteria but are also essential for your digestive system to work properly.
Like it or not, your large and small intestines are filled with approximately 500 different types of bacteria, some good and some bad. Probiotics are the “friendly” bacteria that line the walls of your intestines (imagine rocks that are covered with a thick layer of moss—the soft layer of moss protects the rock, much like the probiotics protect the lining of your intestines). Other common terms for these friendly organisms include: “probiotic bacteria,” “intestinal flora,” or simply “probiotics.”
The layers of probiotics in your intestines actually work with your immune system by preventing bad bacteria—such as salmonella, fungi, Candida, and other nasty disease-causing organisms—from taking hold in your intestines and making you sick. In fact, probiotics are your first line of defense against disease. When unfriendly bacteria enter your digestive tract, probiotics recognize them as the enemy and immediately attack them. But in this process, the probiotics do not harm any of your own cells. They attack only the disease-causing bacteria, and their line of defense actually enables your intestinal cells to absorb even more nutrients out of the foods you eat. And remember: more nutrients equal more energy, a stronger immune system, and overall better health, which makes probiotics very good friends to have in your intestinal tract.
Probiotics are a natural part of your body, and they play a crucial role in maintaining a healthy environment in your intestines; without them, your internal balance will be severely disrupted. When you take antibiotics to fight off an illness, the antibiotics cannot discriminate between good and bad bacteria, so they wipe out everything. (Other drugs like antacids and laxatives can also wipe out your probiotics.) When this happens, your intestines lose their protective layers, becoming dangerously vulnerable to invasion by disease-causing bacteria. Once disease-causing bacteria take hold in your intestines, they can easily enter the bloodstream and infect any organ in your body. Lack of probiotics causes you to become more prone to infectious disease, digestive problems (such as constipation or diarrhea), and malnourishment.
Other things that can kill your probiotics and disrupt the balance of your digestive system include: birth control pills, steroidal/hormonal drugs, fluoride, coffee/tea, carbonated drinks, chlorine, man-made vitamins, preservatives (in food), and stress.
Non-organic animal foods and dairy products tend to contain antibiotics (which were fed to the animals); these antibiotics and chemicals can disrupt your probiotic levels. If you eat non-organic animal foods, if you are on birth control or other hormonal drugs, if you regularly consume any of the foods listed above, and/or if you are exposed to the above-listed chemicals, then you may need to take probiotic supplements (available in pill form) to rebuild and strengthen your digestive system.
Also, when you suffer from digestive problems, you can take probiotic supplements (available in pill form), which contain millions of live cultures—millions of friendly bacteria, remember—to help restore the healthy environment of your intestinal tract.