One of the secrets to optimal health is cultivating a great relationship with bacteria. While many people will be reaching for their favorite antibacterial soap with just the thought of bacteria, there are, in fact, certain species of bacteria that we literally cannot live without.
In fact, our digestive tract is home to a thriving population of life-promoting gut bacteria that take up residence within us from the moment of birth. These microflora are so critical to our survival, that without their presence, every aspect of our health would suffer.
Welcome to Our Inner World
Our digestive tract, all 30 feet of it, is one of the most complex and immensely important organs of the body. The healthy functioning of our digestive system is profoundly dependent on the one hundred trillion microorganisms that dwell there, outnumbering the ten trillion cells that make up our body by ten to one!
While it is commonly believed that intestinal functions are relegated to the absorption and assimilation of food, a healthy digestive tract is intimately connected to our overall well-being. Medical science has only recently discovered that it plays a fundamental role in our immunity, emotional health and, even, hormonal balance.
Our digestive system also has another name. It is called the “enteric nervous system” or our second brain. Endowed with its own, local nervous system, it contains as many neurons as is found in the spinal cord. The gut actually does haves a mind of its own. Just like the larger brain in the head, this system is capable of sending and receiving impulses, records experiences and responds to emotions. Its nerve cells are bathed and influenced by the same neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, as found in our brain. Our gut and brain are continuously influencing and affecting each other.
How the Gut’s “Second Brain” Influences Mood and Well-Being
In order to have a healthy functioning digestive tract we must have a healthy and robust gut flora population. More than 99 percent of microbes living in our intestinal tract are a very diverse group of bacteria, numbering between 500 to 1,000 different species collectively; they add about three pounds to our weight. The rest are yeast or parasites. To keep things in order, a healthy gut population needs to be composed of about 85 percent beneficial microflora.
The vast majority of our gut bacteria take up residence in our small and large intestines. The bacterial population of the large intestines, which is more hospitable to microbes, outnumbers that of the small intestines by about 100,000 to 1. We might liken our gut flora to a large, thriving and diverse community of microbe species, living harmoniously in their particular neighborhood. Each colony contributes their unique functions to the benefit of the whole.
Microbes are a natural part of the human nutrition system. Our microflora are little factories that convert plant and animal products into usable nutrition. Humans require many nutrients that can only be manufactured by these industrious microorganisms. For instance, trillions of cells of bacteria manufacture the following vital nutrients: B vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, biotin, pantothenic acid, pyridoxone, cobalamine), folic acid, and vitamin K. Friendly bacteria are also hard at work allowing for the efficient absorption of essential minerals including calcium, copper, iron and magnesium.
Beneficial bacteria play another major role, they are responsible for insuring a strong immune system. An impressive 70 percent of our immune cells line the intestinal wall. Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria that compete with harmful ones. However, this equilibrium between beneficial and harmful is a delicate balance. Many of our 21st century habits are disrupting influences wreaking havoc on our friendly bacteria. A junk food; diet, pharmaceutical drugs such as antibiotics, steroids, birth control pills; environmental chemicals; and psychological or mental stress all impact our gut flora. Specific beneficial strains can be killed or crowded out, allowing their neighborhoods to be overtaken by harmful bacteria or yeast, such as Candida albicans.
Friendly microbes help prevent disease in several ways. They deprive invaders of nutrients and secrete acids that less friendly microbes can’t tolerate. They also reinforce the mucosal barrier of the intestines, which block dangerous pathogens, toxins, and allergens. Some bacteria stimulate the immune system by increasing T-cell counts, while others produce natural antibiotic and antifungal substances.
It is now coming to light that the trillions of probiotics, which populate our inner ecology, are our best friends — providing beneficial, nutritional and therapeutic functions necessary for overall human health and vitality.
Probiotics—A Gift to Women’s Health
When it comes to ensuring woman’s health, probiotics are indispensable allies for well-being. Beneficial microbes metabolize and recycle hormones, including estrogen, thyroid hormones, and phytoestrogens. This facilitates proper hormonal balance, which can help offset symptoms of perimenopause, and may protect bone and breast health as well. They also detoxify drugs and harmful compounds, as well as having antitumor and anticancer effects.
Pregnancy and Birth—Getting the Gut Right from the Start
We are born sterile. It is only when a baby takes a trip down the birth canal, can the newborn be properly colonized with gut flora that are found in her mother’s vaginal tract.
Breast-feeding is the next stop for the delivery of gut flora. The baby’s intestines colonize with bacteria shortly after birth, through contact with the environment and from breast milk. As a child grows, the bacterial population can diversify to contain many hundreds of different species. This is how an infant’s digestive and immune systems are established.
Cesarean-delivered babies have their initial exposure of bacteria from environmental microbes in the air, other infants and the nursing staff. As a result, the gut flora in infants born by cesarean delivery can be disturbed up to six months after the birth. Breast-feeding helps to colonize the intestinal tract along with additional supplementation with strains of baby bifidobacteria to protect against pathogens.
Breast fed babies have a lower gut pH (acidic environment with reduced microbes such as E. coli and streptococci. But babies fed formula have a high gut pH with a variety of putrefactive bacterial species.
It’s been observed that infants who develop allergies have intestinal bacteria that are distinctly different from those of non-allergic infants, suggesting that the type of intestinal microflora is an important factor in forming allergic conditions. Therefore, it is critical to replenish the beneficial flora through mother’s milk, fermented foods and probiotic supplements.
Benefits of Probiotics
- Probiotics boost immune response by inhibiting growth of pathogenic organisms
- Probiotics detoxify the intestinal tract by protecting intestinal mucosa levels
- Probiotics develop a barrier to food-borne allergies
- Probiotics neutralize antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria
- Probiotics reduce cancer risk
- Probiotics reduce the risk of inflammatory bowel disease (IBS) and diverticulosis
- Probiotics balance and regulate the immune system
- Probiotics helps to reduce estrogen dominance.
- Probiotics synthesize needed vitamins for healing
- Probiotics prevent diarrhea by improving digestion of proteins and fats
- Probiotics reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
- Probiotics support balanced mental and emotional health.
- Probiotics restore vaginal health
Hormone Balance vs. Estrogen Dominance
Probiotics play a major role in helping to maintain hormonal balance in women from the menstruating years all the way through to the post-menopausal years. The greatest challenge to hormonal health is maintaining an optimal balance between estrogen and progesterone. If that balance is thrown out of kilter from an excess of estrogen, hormone havoc ensues. Estrogen dominance symptoms include weight gain, PMS, endometriosis, ovarian cysts, fibroids, hot flashes, migraines, autoimmune diseases and an increased risk of breast cancer.
Intestinal bacteria react with chemical compounds in the intestines such as hormones. One of the functions of healthy gut flora is to make sure the breakdown products of estrogen metabolism are tightly bound so they can be safely excreted from the body.
One of the ways in which the body eliminates excess estrogen as well as fat-soluble toxins like pesticides and solvents, is by binding the toxic to a molecule called glucuronic acid. This complex is then excreted in the bile. However, the bond between the toxin and its escort can be broken by the enzyme, glucuronidase, produced by certain bacteria. Excess glucuronidase activity means more of the toxins are liberated and reabsorbed. A high glucuronidase activity in the gut is associated with an increased cancer risk, particularly the risk of estrogen dependent breast cancer.
Taking probiotic supplements increases the proportion of the beneficial gut flora, Lactobacillus and bifidobacteria decreasing betaglucuronidase producing bacteria.
For overall hormonal balance and to reduce the level of reabsorbed unbound (free) estrogen, it is critical to supplement the diet with the friendly bacteria.
Therefore, supplementing with probiotic becomes a essential strategy for not only reducing estrogen excess but also other dangerous chemicals as well.
Probiotics and Female Health— Vaginitis, Yeast Infections, and Urinary Tract Infection
Many women are unaware their vaginal health depends directly on a flourishing probiotic population, which exists in the vaginal tract. The problems of Candida albicans (also known as a yeast infection), urogenital tract infections (UTIs), bacterial vaginosis and vaginitis are all indications there has been a major disturbance of the gut flora. This results in an over-production of more toxic pathogens and a weakened immune system.
For instance, few women realize the bacteria that cause bladder infections can travel from the gut, to the vagina and into the bladder. Beneficial bacteria take the same route. The use of probiotic supplements have been proven to reduce bladder infections.
It is estimated that nearly 80 percent of women have unhealthy vaginal flora (that make up their vaginal bacteria) at any given time—although they may not exhibit any overt symptoms. Probiotics have been proven to reduce infections by increasing the good gut flora and restoring the requisite balance.
Normally Candida albicans is harmless yeast, living in the gastrointestinal tract, which is well populated by healthy gut flora and a healthy immune system. Unfortunately, when this internal ecology is disrupted, Candida can quickly multiply out of control, especially in the colon. Antibiotics, birth control pills, and environmental chemicals are major causes for disrupting this inner world.
Probiotic treatment restores the balance of vaginal microflora. It plays a major role to help heal vaginitis, bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, bladder infections and urinary tract infections.
It is also interesting to note women who do not have adequate vaginal probiotics double their risk of getting HIV and herpes simplex infection. Moreover, they quadruple their risk of getting gonococcal infections and chlamydia.
More Support for Women’s Health
Probiotics play a key role in the prevention of osteoporosis. Bone loss is one unfortunate result of a lack of friendly microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract. Vitamin K, a vital building block to healthy bones, is a by-product of Lactobacilli, a friendly gut flora.
Probiotics are responsible for producing lactic acid, which greatly increases the body’s ability to absorb minerals such as calcium. Studies with rats whose ovaries are removed (to stop estrogen and induce osteoporosis) have shown that the rats fed with probiotics maintain their bone mass better.
Recent studies indicate that healthy bacteria have a direct impact on mood and behavior by influencing the production of brain chemicals including serotonin and GABA.
Friendly bacteria, specifically Bifidobacteria, help prevent bad bacteria from altering the inner ecology of the intestines. People suffering with mood disorders may be affected by an overgrowth of Candida albicans, which is often a cause of anxiety and depression.
The presence of abundant Lactobacilli bacteria can help contribute to a more relaxed state of mind. During fermentation, Lactobacilli release tryptophan, which produces the calming neurotransmitter serotonin.
An imbalanced digestive tract may contribute to weight gain and obesity. Taking friendly flora is an important step to improving digestion, thus promoting the normal metabolism of calories and fat.
Aging does not only affect the way we look, but the microflora living in our gut. Since our bodies are a host to both good and bad bacteria, the process of aging tilts that balance towards a decline of beneficial bacteria. As a result the immune system is compromised, digestion and absorption are impaired, etc. It is, therefore, essential to replenish the friendly intestinal bacteria to support healthy aging.
A Guide to Choosing an Effective Probiotic
It goes without saying that an effective probiotic should be an essential part of any health program. However, the world of probiotic supplements is confusing, to say the least. So, what are the most reliable guidelines for choosing a proven probiotic? First of all, it should guarantee the highest number of live microbes. In the world of probiotics, the microbial contents are described as “Colon Forming units (CFU)”, meaning the number of microbes — bacteria or yeasts — that are capable of dividing and forming colonies. That number should be in the billions, the more severe the health problem, the greater the CFU’s required. Ideally we want at least 10 billion CFU/dose.
Our probiotic supplement should also be composed of multiple strains of Lactobacillus and bifidobacteria in a formulation that assures live delivery into the intestinal tract.
Probiotics, A Woman’s Friend for Life
Incorporating an effective probiotic supplement into one’s daily program is really an essential part of every woman’s health strategy. Not only will probiotics help to maintain hormonal balance but they, also insure a strong immune system, efficient digestion, balance moods, vibrant energy and strong bones.
The word probiotic is a compound of and indeed, favorable to every aspect of a woman’s health through her entire life.
Sherrill Sellman, ND
Dr. Sellman is an international author, psychotherapist, women’s health advocate and seminar presenter. Through her books, Hormone Heresy?—?What Women Must Know About Their Hormones and Mothers Prevent Your Daughters from Getting Breast Cancer, lectures and seminars, she has empowered women all over the world to make more educated and informed choices about their health.