Read an Excerpt
There’s a struggle going on in your body right now, and the participants are tireless, vigorous, and resourceful. It is a classic confrontation between two forces: good and bad. And in this case, it’s between “good” or beneficial, friendly bacteria and “bad” or harmful, unfriendly bacteria. This struggle is based in your gastrointestinal tract, which covers a very large amount of territory: Stretched out, your intestinal lining covers about 300 square meters, or roughly the size of a tennis court. You are not the only one engaged in this battle. A similar one rages on in everyone regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, race, or shoe size, 24 hours a day, every day. You and your body can be the winners—or the losers—of the ongoing conflict only if you provide the friendly side with enough of the right reinforcements: Probiotics.
What are Probiotics?
Trillions of microorganisms live in your intestinal tract, or “gut,” as it is commonly referred to and how we refer to it throughout this book. These beneficial flora are absolutely essential for health and well-being. If you are healthy, chances are your beneficial microorganisms are thriving as well. However, for reasons we discuss below, making sure that these friendly flora remain viable and balanced can be a challenge.
Probiotics (meaning “for life”) can help you face that challenge. Probiotics are friendly, beneficial microorganisms—mainly bacteria—that work with the body and help maintain the delicate balance between the beneficial flora and bad bacteria that is necessary for health and well-being. When the balance tips too far in the direction of the bad bacteria, which happens frequently, a wide spectrum of symptoms and diseases can result—everything from recurring bouts of diarrhea to urinary tract infections to fatigue and muscle pain. To prevent illness as well as treat conditions associated with an imbalance between these types of bacteria, more and more health professionals and consumers are turning to probiotics, which can be found both in supplements and in a variety of foods.
I’m going to take a moment here to share a personal story about the power of probiotics because it’s a tale with which many people can identify. How many times in your life have you been floored by the flu? You know the symptoms: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, aches, and generally feeling lousy. Like the zit that erupts on your face the day you have an important date or need to give a big presentation, the flu often appears at very inconvenient times. So, when I woke up on the morning of the big annual chili cookoff competition that my family sponsors every year at our house and I was overwhelmed by nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever, I knew I was in trouble. I had approximately eight hours to get better, before hordes of people would appear on my doorstep carrying steaming crockpots full of spicy, hot chili.
Fortunately, I knew what I had to do: I immediately took 2.5 billion CFUs (colony-forming units—the number of viable cells in a dose) of five species of probiotics and went to bed. Then every two hours for the next eight hours, I took 2.5 billion CFUs of probiotics and continued to rest. By the time the first chili competitors rang my doorbell at 5 pm, I was free of symptoms: no more nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or fever. However, I thought better of diving headfirst into the waiting bowls of chili, so when the competition heated up a few hours later, I ate conservatively, just sampling many different chilis. Throughout that night and the next day, I continued to take about 2.5 billion CFUs of probiotics every six to eight hours. Within seven to eight hours of experiencing my first flu symptoms, I was not only symptom-free, but felt like my old self.
This is just one example of the power of probiotics. Since that chili adventure, I have used this probiotic treatment approach several more times, and it has worked every time. Without getting into a detailed discussion of how and why probiotics work—which we do in chapter 2 and in part two of this book—here we want to say that, when you provide probiotics to your gut—in food and/or supplements—your goal is to tilt the balance of bacteria highly in favor of the good guys, so they can effectively inhibit the growth and development of unfriendly bacterial strains and prevent other pathogens from staking a claim in the body.
Why is this balance so hard to maintain? A quick look at modern society and lifestyles provides the answer. Literally dozens of factors make it difficult to maintain the critical balance between beneficial and harmful bacteria. Poor food choices, use of antibiotics and other drugs, emotional stress, lack of sleep, environmental influences—all of these factors and more jeopardize the balance in the intestinal flora, resulting in a reduction of beneficial bacteria and opening the door for bad bacteria and other disease-causing substances (pathogens) to take over and cause infection, illness, and disease. Bad bacteria are also very opportunistic, prime examples of the old adage, “give an inch, take a mile.” If the environment in your gut is even mildly favorable to bad bacteria, they will grow and proliferate with a vengeance.
The challenge, then, is to provide your body with plenty of friendly bacteria to thwart the actions of the bad bacteria and other pathogens, and to restore a healthy balance in your gut.
More About The Gut
By the time you finish this book—or perhaps even this chapter—you should have a newfound appreciation for your gut and all the complex and health-maintaining activities that go on there. We hope to help you understand that what happens in your gut significantly impacts every cell, tissue, and organ system in your body.
The Glorious Gut
The intestinal tract is a remarkable organ that is coated with both friendly and unfriendly microorganisms which, together with the actual cell lining of the gut, serve both as a protective barrier and a filtering and distribution point. When the gut is healthy, it successfully filters out and eliminates damaging substances such as unfriendly bacteria, toxins, chemicals, and other waste products, and prevents them from being absorbed and carried throughout the body. At the same time, the gut absorbs and helps distribute essential ingredients, such as nutrients from food and water, and sends them to the cells in the body that need them.
Thus, the gut has a great deal of control over what happens throughout your body, just like the brain in your head controls your bodily functions. This association between gut and brain is more than coincidence, it’s a physical reality.
The Brain-Gut Axis
In fact, scientists have found that a network of chemical and electrical signals continuously pass between the central nervous system (brain) and the gastrointestinal system. They call this exchange pathway the brain-gut axis, and some experts refer to the gut as the second brain. This intimate relationship between your cerebral brain and your gut brain is one reason why what happens in your gut has such an effect on the rest of the body.
The truth is, most people are pretty hard on their second brain. For example, think about your diet. Do you consume processed foods, fried foods, sugar, alcohol? How about foods that contain pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, steroids, artificial colors, preservatives, and flavorings? These dietary assaults on your gut, and many other factors (discussed below), can cause the bacterial flora in your gut to go out of balance.
Once the beneficial flora decline in number, damaging substances gain the upper hand and your health suffers: Your gut becomes damaged and inflamed, toxins get into your bloodstream and cause distressing symptoms, nutritional deficiencies occur, and a host of other health conditions can result.
That’s why the basis of any health or healing plan must focus lots of attention on your gut. Exactly what makes the gut so important?
The Gut at Work
The intestinal tract is the distribution point for nutrients throughout your body. If your distribution center isn’t working properly, the nutrients don’t get sent to their required destinations. What would happen if the sorting system at your local post office went on the blink, half the employees didn’t show up for work, and the trucks broke down? The mail would enter the post office, but it couldn’t be sorted or distributed, and you wouldn’t get your mail. Your gut works in a similar way: You can put food and nutrients into your body, but if your gut isn’t healthy enough to support and handle them, they will not get processed and distributed throughout your body.
The colon is the main channel for bad bacteria, medication residues, parasites, and other toxins and waste to leave the body. It is essential that these materials leave the body regularly and as completely as possible. Yet, poor dietary habits and lifestyle practices cause many people to suffer from incomplete elimination and to retain fecal matter much longer—even years—and in great quantities in their intestinal tract. Not only does old fecal matter offer a perfect environment in which bad bacteria can breed and grow, it also causes the walls of the colon to expand and press on other organs in the abdominal cavity, ultimately resulting in conditions such as polyps, colon cancer, diverticulosis, and Crohn’s disease.
Hardened fecal matter on the walls of the colon also make it very difficult for you to absorb any nutrients from your food. This can result in nutritional deficiencies. In fact, the whole relationship between health, probiotics, incomplete elimination, and residual fecal matter is so important that we address it in more detail in chapter 4, where you can learn how to cultivate healthy bowel habits that will enhance your overall health and vitality.
If you consume probiotics every day, as food and/or supplements, you can help maintain the proper balance of bacterial flora in the gut and thus enjoy better health and vitality. We will explore the unique relationship between beneficial bacteria and health in each of the chapters in part two, where we talk about how probiotics can help specific symptoms and medical conditions.
How do You Know if You Need Probiotics?
I like to think about good and bad bacteria and the gut in terms of mosquitoes and swamps. If you were to stand in a swamp (i.e., a gut that is swarming with bad bacteria), you could swat at the great hordes of swarming mosquitoes all day with a fly swatter and you would never kill an appreciable number, as long as the bugs have the swamp in which to reproduce and grow. If you were to drain the swamp, you would remove the mosquitoes’ resource for life, and they would die. Similarly, if you were to scoop up a bottle full of mosquitoes and release them in a pristine, dry environment in which there were no bodies of water where the mosquitoes could breed and reproduce, they would die.
Thus you have a choice: Your gut can be a nasty swamp and a breeding ground for unfriendly bacteria and other pathogens, which places you at constant risk of an extensive range of illnesses and diseases; or you can drain the swamp—chase out all those nasty bacteria—and provide a friendly, pristine environment that supports and nurtures beneficial bacteria, good health, and vitality.
Copyright © 2007 by Lynn Sonberg Book Associates. All rights reserved.