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Probiotics: The bugs in your guts

You have a lot of control over who gets to live in your body besides you. To learn more about what you can do, see my page Avoiding Infection. 

Imagine your body is a city where all your bacteria live. Balance and cooperation exists when there is an abundance of friendly bacteria. They love and take care of their beautiful city (you) and keep out negative elements that would upset their happy place. There are gorgeous, lush gardens and parks (prebiotics) for the bacteria to enjoy. All is harmonious until a natural disaster strikes the city (trauma, shock, antibiotics) and tragically many of the good citizens die. Mean, destructive bacteria start to infiltrate, setting up camps, creating mayhem and illness, and destroying the health of the city. A call for help is raised, and additional good guys flood the city (probiotic foods and supplements) and edge out the destructive bacteria until they are contained and controlled. Harmony returns with friendlies back in charge of the city.

We have more bacteria and microbes in and on our bodies than we have actual human cells. An average person has 30 trillion human cells and 39 trillion bacteria. Health and homeostasis requires working harmoniously with the bacteria we share space with. Probiotics means “for life,” and these helpful bacteria come in many different strains such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium. They also help ward off harmful bacteria, create an acidic environment in the digestive tract (a good thing), and inhibit growth of other microorganisms such as yeast. Probiotic bacteria also help us heal: a study on burns found that supplementing the diet with probiotics reduces the time required to complete wound healing [1].

Superbugs, bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, are a major threat to patients in hospital. In March of 2016, Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, the director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said far too many patients were getting infected with drug-resistant bacteria in healthcare facilities. Ironically, we go to the hospital to get better, but this is where patients are most likely to become infected. A shocking one in four people in the hospital develops an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection, according to the CDC—and staying in the hospital for more than twenty-five days increases the risk [2].

Probiotics are generally recognized as having a positive effect in keeping harmful intestinal microorganisms in check, aiding digestion and nutrient absorption, and contributing to a strong immunity. They promote the return to harmony following a perturbing event (dysbiosis) such as antibiotic therapy, which is fairly standard practice in hospitals. We take care of our body’s “good” bacteria by providing them with a supportive environment. Prebiotics are specialized plant fibers that nourish the good bacteria already in the colon. They encourage beneficial changes both in the composition and activity of the bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. Probiotics introduce good bacteria into the gut, and prebiotics support the good bacteria that are already there [3].

Sometimes, life gets really hairy and scary and you get a bad infection. I've been there. You're prescribed antibiotics. It's okay. There is a way to use probiotics therapeutically to help minimize the negative impacts that can come with taking antibiotics. I explain it in the blog post 'Avoiding Infection'. Otherwise, start to add food sources that are rich in probiotics.

Fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut, sour pickles, and kimchi, are rich in probiotics. I have a chef friend who pickles and makes his own veggies, depending on what he has at hand. You will also find good bacteria in kombucha (a fermented tea drink), miso and tempeh (soy), and kefir and yogurt (dairy). Start with small amounts first and see how your body responds. For people with intolerances or allergies to soy or dairy even the fermented form may be too much. You can make your own drinks and foods using kefir starters, kombucha kits, or probiotic capsules. Try substituting dairy with nut milks (coconut, almond) or seed milks like hemp when making homemade yoghurt and kefir. 

Endnotes

[1] T. Mayes, M. M. Gottschlich, L. E. James, C. Allgeier, J. Weitz, R. J.
Kagan, “Clinical safety and efficacy of probiotic administration following
burn injury,” Journal of Burn Care and Research (official publication
of the American Burn Association) 36, no. 1 (2015), 92–99,
doi: 10.1097/BCR.0000000000000139.

[2] “Superbugs threaten hospital patients,” Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention, retrieved on March 3, 2016 from http://www.cdc.
gov/media/releases/2016/p0303-superbugs.html.

[3] D. M. Linares, P. Ross, C. Stanton, “Beneficial Microbes: The pharmacy
in the gut,” Bioengineered Dec. 28, 2015: 1–28.