Next time you’re unhappy with the reading on your bathroom scale, remember that around half a kilogram of your weight isn’t you at all – it’s the millions and millions of bugs living in your intestinal tract. At any one time there are more bacteria in your body than the total number of people who have ever lived on the planet.
The lurgies in your system
Most of these bacteria are ‘friendly’ – they keep bad bacteria from growing, aid digestion and absorption of nutrients, help produce B vitamins and vitamin K, fight infections and keep your immune system functioning properly. For your colon to do its job in maintaining your health, at least 85 percent of the bacteria in your lower intestine need to be the friendly type.
Our modern lifestyle can disturb this vital balance, leading to the overproduction of ‘unfriendly’ bacteria. Chlorine and sodium fluoride, present in most treated city water, are especially damaging to intestinal flora. Poor eating habits, alcohol consumption, stress and disease contribute to the problem. Antibiotics, although sometimes necessary and even life-saving, work by killing bacteria – but they don’t differentiate between good and bad ones, and apart from their medical application, are increasingly used in the production of our food. Health issues related to imbalance of intestinal bacteria include stomach and respiratory infections, gas and bloating, yeast and fungal infections, skin infections, bowel problems, tooth decay and periodontal conditions.
Probiotics – the word means ‘for life’ – are live organisms that can help restore the balance and enhance your immune system. In a healthy diet, they come from naturally-fermented foods like yoghurt, sauerkraut, Japanese miso and some cheeses, or are added to products like juices and soy drinks. If these items don’t make up a significant part of your daily fare, you can choose from a rapidly-growing range of supplements in the form of capsules, tablets, powders and liquids.
Given that probiotic products are regarded as nutritional supplements rather than as medicines and are therefore not tested and controlled as stringently as medical products, how can you tell whether you’re buying a product that will actually do what it says it will?
Firstly, select a reputable manufacturer and take note of the packaging – probiotics should be packed in specially-formulated plastic or glass containers to protect the live organisms. Probably the best form of supplement is the capsule, as capsules have a built-in defence against moisture, oxygen and harmful contaminants. The most effective product will contain between three and seven of the main probiotic strains, as well as prebiotics which work alongside the probiotics to maximise their effect. So be sure to read the label – and check the sell-by date – before you make your decision.
Of course you should never use any complementary or alternative therapy instead of conventional medical care, nor put off seeking that care if it is indicated. Side-effects of probiotic supplements are usually mild and could include digestive upsets and headaches; if you experience anything at all that concerns you, have a chat to your health-care professional.
And may all your bacteria be friendly ones!