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Bacterial Buddies

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Let's face it, bacteria have earned a bad reputation because we associate them with disease. We go to great lengths to keep them at bay using antibiotics and antibacterials.

Let's face it, bacteria have earned a bad reputation because we associate them with disease. We go to great lengths to keep them at bay using antibiotics and antibacterials.

But, in fact, bacteria are needed to balance our external environment soil, water and air as well as our own bodies. They are our friends; without them, our bodies would cease to function properly.

What are Probiotics?

The bacteria that support and enhance life are called probiotics. These help maintain a healthy intestinal flora necessary for the proper digestion and assimilation of food, among many other health functions. A healthy intestinal flora also prevents the growth of undesirable micro-organisms, including candida (yeast) overgrowth and disease-causing bacteria. According to the latest definitions of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), probiotics are "live organisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host."

Where Do They Come From?

Bacteria are present everywhere. We find them in very large numbers in soil, in water and on all plants and animals in close contact with nature. Some beneficial bacteria are well adapted to our gastrointestinal tract; they are responsible for the colonization of the intestinal tracts of newborns. The most common group of probiotic bacteria is lactic acid bacteria (LAB). They are better known by their Latin names: Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus plantarum, Bifidobacterium longum, Bifidobacterium breve, to name a few. Deficiencies of these friendly bacteria are common due to sickness, bad eating habits and antibiotic use.

What are Their Benefits?

The beneficial effects of probiotics are linked to their ability to produce enzymes, organic acids, antimicrobial compounds and various immunity messengers. By doing so, they help with lactose intolerance, boost the immune system, correct digestive tract imbalances, inhibit pathogens and keep the vaginal tract healthy.

  • Digestive enzymes: Probiotic bacteria produce various kinds of enzymes that significantly help the digestion process. Proteases, peptidases, lactase, bile hydrolase and phytase, among others, allow a better and more complete digestion of food; they act in synergy and help boost our own enzymes. They also help break down lactose into digestible forms of sugar.
  • Organic acids: The ability of LAB to produce lactic acid and other organic acids improves stomach acid, allowing a better assimilation of minerals such as calcium, magnesium and most trace elements.
  • Antimicrobial compounds: Most probiotics produce molecules that fight various pathogens such as E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella. Some of them also produce hydrogen peroxide and/or other small molecules that inhibit various bacteria.
  • Immunity messengers: It is now documented that bacteria communicate with each other as well as with other organisms. Probiotic bacteria, for example, "influence" our immune system by stimulating production of "cytokines," which help regulate our response to various stresses; they also "communicate" with our intestinal cells to stimulate mucus production and thus prevent infection.

How Do You Select Them?

Probiotics are available at natural health stores in various forms: capsules, tablets, sachets, enteric-coated capsules (stable at room temperature), fermented soy products and fermented liquids such as kefir and natural yogurt (mainly found in the refrigerated sections).

Whatever their form, they should always be kept at low temperature, which preserves their viability and biological activities.

It is well known that the colon microflora (where most bifidobacteria are predominant) differ significantly from those of your small intestine (where lactobacilli are mainly predominant). You should thus select products containing at least one or two strains of lactobacilli and bifidobacteria. This way you increase the chances of having strains that are best suited to your individual needs.

Choose the dosage form that best suits your needs and lifestyle; if you often travel or eat out, look for products stable at room temperature. If you want high potencies, you should look for enteric-coated products they minimize the loss of biological activity due to stomach acidity.

How Do You Take Them?

Since live bacteria are very sensitive to acidic environments, they should be taken in ways that minimize their exposure to stomach acids.

  • Take enteric-coated probiotic capsules. They are released only in the intestine, where the acidity of the stomach has been neutralized. They can be taken any time of day, with or without food.
  • Dissolve powder in a glass of water and take on an empty stomach. This allows rapid passage through the stomach and minimizes the exposure to stomach acids.
  • Take regular capsules or tablets during a meal. The foods you eat will neutralize a large proportion of the stomach acids and buffer (protect) the probiotic bacteria.

The most natural way of ingesting large concentrations of good bacteria is certainly with our foods. Fermented foods, including unpasteurized yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, quark, Camembert or Brie cheese and raw, unpasteurized sauerkraut, provide some of these friendly bacteria. But processing and culinary activities such as washing, peeling, cooking, pasteurizing, sterilizing, freezing and thawing are highly detrimental to the bacterial flora naturally found on fresh foods. Probiotic supplements thus become a must for all those willing to maintain good rapport with the microbial world.

For preventive treatment, take between one and 10 billion probiotic bacteria per day (yogurt contains a LAB concentration of one to 100 million per gram, hence you would need to eat a litre of yogurt per day for the same effect). For therapeutic uses, it is suggested to increase the dose by at least tenfold in order to restore the microflora sometimes eliminated by antibiotics.

Friendly bacteria counteract the adverse conditions of our modern lifestyle stress and an inadequate diet. Clearly probiotics are a key supplement for balancing your overall wellness.

What About Prebiotics?

You now know the benefits of probiotics. Prebiotics, on the other hand, are soluble fibres that can be digested by certain intestinal bacteria. These non-digestible food ingredients improve health by stimulating the growth or activity of beneficial bacteria in the intestines. FOS and inulin are among the prebiotics available in health food stores.

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