I see tons of advertising on TV and Facebook for probiotics. Just recently I read an excellent post from Silver Sneakers on Facebook, The Best Foods for a Healthy Gut. Unfortunately the reader needs to know just a bit more than the article provides.
The question is – why and when are probiotics necessary and what is the best way to take them?
Under ideal circumstances your gut is a war zone with a peace agreement between trillions of good and bad bacteria. Maintenance of peace depends on the balanced presence of the good bacteria to keep the enemy at bay.
Probiotics are the good bacteria.
The good bacteria are called probiotics. While the article might lead you to believe that these good bacteria are only found in certain fermented food, that isn’t true. Your gut should be full of those probiotics and the fermented food is just adding to the mix in a good way.
Beyond fending off the bad guys, the good bacteria digest our food, synthesize (create) certain essential vitamins, produce some very important hormones, and maintain the security and health of our gut lining. How this works is more completely described in my article/blog post, Digestion is the Issue in our Health. If the good bacteria are losing the battle, your health is threatened.
When the natural probiotics (bacteria) in your gut are inadequate, which seems to be happening quite a lot, sending in reinforcements does make sense. But there will be more to it than that.
How do we get our bacteria in the first place?
We first get our bacteria from our mothers on the way out in delivery. A lot of the good bacteria, about 40% of a baby’s load, also come from breast feeding, both from the milk and contact with mom’s skin. The baby acquires immunities delivered by mom through her bacteria. Or at least that is the way it was until caesarean deliveries became fashionable.
Back in 1970 only 5% of deliveries were by caesarean. In 2015, caesarean deliveries were a third of the total. So the healthy bacteria expected to be gotten “on the way out” is missing. Instead the baby’s bacterial load is arriving from the hospital room, the bodies of the people assisting, maybe the person who cleaned the room. Not necessarily a good thing.
It appears that about 79% of babies start life breast feeding but the percentage falls to 29% at 12 months. Thus the historical health benefits accrued from longer breastfeeding may be completely or partially missing as well.
Prebiotics are the food for the bacteria.
Everything that lives has to have food; bacteria are no exception. The food is prebiotics. This amounts to the fiber found in food. The standard American diet (SAD), typically processed commercial and fast food, is woefully missing the fiber that arrives in abundance in edible plants.
Everything that grows out of the ground includes natural fiber. Commercial processing of food removes that fiber. Sometimes they add some fiber back in unnaturally but you are getting the short end of the stick.
Fiber comes in two forms. Insoluble fiber absorbs water and escorts waste from the body. Soluble fiber actually ferments in the intestines and feeds the bacteria. You cannot tell which kind of fiber has been added back into a commercial product. Both forms are required for intestinal health and digestion. Eat whole food and you get all the fiber your need.
Unfed, the good bacteria cannot do their job.
What threatens the peace agreement?
A diet high in processed food (chemical additives, real and artificial sugar, excess starches, and commercial vegetable oils) deprives the good bacteria of food. If you don’t feed the soldiers, they can’t fight. Chemicals in the environment, stress, and general medications can all be a danger to good bacteria and their work.
Many researchers have made the case that our efforts to protect our children and ourselves with the use of antiseptic-everything has had a reverse effect. Our bodies can develop tolerances and antibodies through bacterial exposures in our early years. Some of us have gotten “clean” down to a fine, not necessarily good art.
But a major threat to the peace treaty is antibiotics.
Antibiotics are intended to kill bacteria that have made you sick. But, unfortunately, they are a threat to both good and bad bacteria. Over the years the use of antibiotics has skyrocketed both in people and animal treatment.
How many times have you heard of somebody in ICU for three weeks of IV antibiotics trying to find one that will work to cure an infection? How about someone on multiple, extended courses of antibiotics? How many children are persistently given antibiotics to treat recurring ear infections?
We are up again antibiotic resistant bacteria. The big ones can be almost un-treatable. Examples are pneumonia, E.colie, C-diff., and MRSA. Some of the bacteria have gotten really smart, mutating in different ways to block the action of antibiotics. You can take a deep dive into antibiotic resistance in this research paper.
A healthy immune system is designed to counter infections. Some infections are so serious that the antibiotics are essential but not always. Sometimes the immune system should just be allowed to fight the good fight. But that may be hard to accept, especially when the patient is a miserable child. A parent may say, “Can’t you give him something?”
Antibiotics are sometimes prescribed just in case when the illness is viral. Nothing kills a virus; you just have to wait it out and sometimes treat the symptoms. The more antibiotics we take, the more good bacteria we kill.
High levels of antibiotics can allow an overgrowth of yeast in the gut. Treating a yeast infection with an antibiotic only makes it worse. Get the picture?
How to maintain gut health.
So how do we maintain a good balance in our bacteria?
Try to start your children out with a good balance at birth. A caesarean delivery or formula over breast feeding just for convenience is not the best choice. Be really sure you need to take an antibiotic; is “just in case” actually important?
Never take an antibiotic for a virus or a yeast infection. Minimize any unnecessary drugs, avoid a processed food diet, and keep your stress level manageable.
If antibiotics are really required or if there is a history of antibiotics, sending in probiotic reinforcements is a good idea. This article, How to Properly Take Probiotics with Antibiotics provides good direction.
Pat Smith is the author of “It’s All about the Food,” a book that guides nutritious food choices as the way to avoid illness and maintain a healthy weight. Pat is a resident of Montgomery County, AR, president of Ouachita Village, Inc. board of directors (Montgomery County Food Pantry); chairman of the Tasty Acre project; and member of the Mount Ida Area Chamber of Commerce board of directors. Her website is http://allaboutthefood.org/