There are between three and five pounds of bacteria living in your digestive tract- And that’s weight you don’t want to lose! For every human cell in your body (about ten trillion), there are roughly 10 single-celled microbes, most of which live in your digestive tract. 5600 different kinds in fact! And they’re important, but to give you a better idea of the big picture, lets first look at the digestive system as a whole.
Your digestive system is made up of several parts, beginning with the mouth. For most of us, this is where we take in the fuel that runs our body. When you swallow the first bite of your breakfast it travels down your esophagus toward your stomach where it will be mixed with an acid strong enough to burn a hole through the table you’re eating your meal off of. Bit by bit, this acid will break down your scrambled eggs to a level far beyond what you could have possibly chewed it to. In the small intestine, the nutrition from your food is absorbed into the bloodstream. Once all the goodness of your meal has been absorbed from the length (15 to 30 feet!) of the small intestine, it passes through to the large intestine (a mere 5 feet long) where the water is squeezed out of it and absorbed back into the body. This is also where the aforementioned bacteria hang out.
So… probiotics? Probiotics are the good guys, the foundation of our immune system. They aren’t anything new though- they’ve been around for years. They just looked a little different than the refrigerated bottles you see today at the health food store. It was first discovered in the early 1900’s that consuming sour (fermented) milk could benefit one’s health by modifying the flora manually, but cultured foods like miso, sauerkraut & kim chee have been around for hundreds, even thousands of years. Plenty of fermented dairy products are out there today from kefir to some soft cheeses like gouda in addition to the cultured probiotic foods on the market.
What about yogurt? While there can be probiotics present in the yogurt that you’re consuming, many of them will not survive the harsh environment of the stomach. Yes, some may make it through to the other side of the duodenum (the first part of the small intestine, where digestive enzymes are released from the pancreas) most will not. Many supplemental brands of probiotics are “enteric coated” to help them survive the stomach acid in order to release more into the intestines.
Note: If going the yogurt route, be sure to check that the label says “contains active cultures”. While live bacteria may have been added to the product at one time, if it has since been pasteurized, all those helpful little guys are long gone. Also, choose one without artificial sweeteners like Sucralose (Splenda), Saccharin, Acesulphame Potassium or Aspartame.
Antibiotics. By definition of the word, “anti” means “against” and “bio” means “life”. They kill life. In our society they’re generally prescribed to kill off a bacterial infection that’s making us ill, but they don’t exactly discriminate: they wipe out the good, the bad & the ugly. When we lose our good bacteria it can affect our digestion or immune system, resulting in further infections or diarrhea. If you absolutely must go through a round of antibiotics, I highly recommend to a) finish them (Every time. Even if you’re feeling better halfway through.) and b) follow up with probiotics to repopulate your colon with healthy bacteria before the bad guys get a chance to take over. Choose a reputable brand with at least five billion live bacteria, and choose a bottle with an expiry date as far away from today’s date as possible (for more alive than dead).
People seem to have gotten along just fine without supplements for thousands of years- what gives? Now that we spend more time inside than not, we’re not exposed to the natural bacteria in the world as much. As a result of living in uber-clean environments, our immune systems aren’t anywhere near what they looked like a hundred years ago. Avoiding the bad guys (overuse of antibacterial soaps or alcohol wipes & hand cleansers) isn’t an alternative to probiotic ingestion. The term bacteria itself seems to come along with a negative stigma, but the majority of all bacteria on Earth are essential to life as we know it. Very few of the total amount of bacteria out there are harmful or will cause disease. Having exposure to a variety of different kinds of bacteria is important for the body (let your kids play around in the dirt!).
There’s also a lot of evidence of a brain/gut connection. When you’re nervous you feel it in your gut, right? There are more neurons in the digestive tract or so-called “second brain” than in the nervous system. There are many links to the gut and mental health. One more reason it’s an important place to take care of.
Be good to your body, it’s the only place you have to live in!