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Do You Have Enough Bacteria in Your System?

by Daniel on August 26th, 2011

We’ve all been taught that bacteria are ‘the enemy,’ and we arm ourselves with antibacterial items ranging from hand soap to trash bags. But did you know that your body needs certain kinds of bacteria to keep you healthy?

Our GI (gastrointestinal) tracts are home to 400 kinds of bacteria! But before you cringe, let me assure you that many of them are actually quite good for you. They play a vital role in digestion and in maintaining a thriving immune system. Your system strives to maintain a balance between the healthful bacteria and the harmful bacteria in order to keep your GI tract, er, running smoothly. As you know, your body is a carefully wrought little ecosystem, so when your GI system is healthy, other functions are able to sustain health, too.

Without enough healthful bacteria, the body can suffer an upset stomach, diarrhea, lactose intolerance, food poisoning, a urinary tract infection or a yeast infection. That’s why many women increase their yogurt consumption when they get yeast infections –yogurt contains some of those healthful bacteria! (By the way, yogurt is a source of healthful bacteria, but it is inexact because of uncertain quantity and quality – it’s generally pasteurized, after all — so don’t rely solely on your morning yogurt.)

Many people are surprised to learn the digestive tract (specifically the intestinal mucosa) plays arguably the largest role in immunity. This is because of the healthful bacteria’s ability to control or eradicate harmful bacteria, such as E. coli. Also, the body often pulls missing essential amino acids from the bacteria in the lower intestinal tract. This is good news for you vegetarians who worry about getting enough amino acids from protein!

While the body generally maintains the balance between the two kinds of bacteria, certain situations can cause the balance to shift out of whack. Such situations include infection, aging, fatigue, stress, alcohol consumption, inadequate diet, taking antibiotics and traveling.

If your doctor prescribes antibiotics, consider asking him or her whether or not you should supplement your diet with something called “probiotics.” Probiotics are products containing healthful bacteria, and they can be found in capsule and powder forms. Antibiotics knock out all kinds of bacteria in your system, not just the one that is making you sick. Not to worry — probiotics won’t counteract your prescription; they’ll just help restore the healthful bacteria in your digestive system.

Also, if you plan to travel, you are at a high risk of exposure to foreign bacteria, so supplementing with probiotics can go a long way in preventing unfortunate (and unmentionable!) illnesses.

If you are considering buying probiotics, you should keep two things in mind. First, probiotics are effective as preventive efforts, but are not great for treatment. Second, be sure you are buying a product that contains probiotics that have been proven effective for your specific concern. Just like any other supplement, there’s a lot of stuff out there that’s good, but there’s also a lot that isn’t worth the plastic it’s bottled in.

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