We are born with a sterile gut but with no pre-existing bacteria to demand competition the bugs acquired during the birth process colonise our infant gut within days. We acquire our gut flora from the birth canal and mothers’ milk. Such is the growth in good bacteria that a new-born is soon accommodating a mass of microbes, the cells of which collectively outnumber human cells by at least 10 to 1.In fact if a cell by cell count was made we could be considered quickly to become 99 per cent bacteria, certainly at the end of the process we become an amalgam of human and microbial cells. This partnership is vitally important to our well-being, truly we are as healthy as our commensal flora allows us to be. Compelling new research now shows many caesarean-section infants have less-than-optimal health after birth because they are not exposed to the mother's healthy bacteria in the birth canal. Babies that are given the best start nutritionally by being breastfed tend to have intestinal micro flora in which beneficial bacteria predominate over potentially harmful bacteria.
In a study that was reported in the Journal of Infection and Immunology, it was found oral penicillin administered to experimental animals reduced the total population of anaerobic bacteria by a factor of 1,000. As the good bacteria are killed off, the potentially harmful bacteria increase rapidly. This study reported translocation of the harmful bacteria out of the intestinal tract and into the lymph nodes surrounding the intestinal tract. From these lymph nodes, these bacteria were then strategically placed to cause new infections throughout the body. The reduction in normal flora negatively affects the immune system and we depend on the symbiotic relationship with our gut flora to assist our immune system. This then has a cumulative effect as mothers can pass only the kind of gut bacteria they have on to their babies and if their bacterial system is poor so will be that of their babies. In short it maybe that our entire gut flora in the western world has been progressively compromised by 60 years of antibiotic use because by now most people have taken antibiotics at some time during their lives.
In 2003 there was a study of over 100 children from families with a history of eczema. Half of their mothers took Lactobacillus GG a normal occupant of the human gut at the end of their pregnancies and for six months after giving birth the other half took a placebo. Children who had been exposed to the bacteria were 40 per cent less likely to develop eczema by the age of 4 than the other group.
How is it that an artificially cultured probiotic can impact on a baby’s gut health so significantly and conventual medicine be so unaware of what may be causing the problem? In the scheme of things most babies should receive their dose of good bacteria by natural means. However some mothers may not have many good bacteria to give to their child, some babies are born by caesarean section or are given antibiotics early in life and /or are fed baby formula and consequently do not get their good bacterial protection. Though it can surmised that some babies have less good bacteria it is very difficult to actually diagnose a less than efficient bacterial system in a baby. So if breastfeeding has not been possible and particularly if the baby has taken antibiotics which kill off both the good and bad bacteria in their gut many babies can use a boost of good bacteria. The most benefit from probiotics, at least in terms of eczema, happens very early in life as only young babies up to the age of 3 months seem to benefit from this supplementation. Good bacteria acquired from the mother, which is why the mothers took the good bacteria in late pregnancy, seem to be better than those fed directly to the infant though those are useful too.
A new study suggests that taking probiotics from early pregnancy till the baby is weaned from breastfeeding can help a mother lose any extra weight she has put on in the pregnancy.
And the benefits go well beyond this. Research shows giving pregnant women and new-borns a supplement of good bacteria can:
• protect babies from developing eczema in childhood as has already been mentioned
• Help prevent childhood allergies by reducing the possibility of leaky gut which leads to food intolerance.
• Prevent the treated babies gaining excessive weight later in life.
• Improve the symptoms of colic, which is probably caused by food intolerance.
• Prevent mothers from going into premature labour.
So if pregnant women and their new-born infants can benefit from extra probiotics do probiotics also have health benefits for the average adult?
A properly formatted high quality probiotic can have major health benefits:
1. Aid in digesting food, particularly hard-to-digest foods.
2. Enhance the synthesis of B vitamins and improve calcium usage in the body.
3. Help you keep a healthy balance of intestinal micro flora despite modern day antagonists.
4. Probiotics promote vaginal health in women.
5. Immune system support.
Humans are omnivores and can eat a great variety of food because the upper gut is a sterile, digesting carnivorous gut (like a dog's or a cat's) to deal with meat and fat, whilst the lower gut (large bowel or colon) is full of bacteria and is a fermenting, vegetarian gut (like a horse's or cow's) to digest vegetables and fibre. From an evolutionary point of view this has been a highly successful situation allowing humans to fit into many niche habitats from the Mongolian steppes and a herder lifestyle with its emphasis on fat and meat to the pure vegan lifestyle of other traditional peoples. But problems arise when the upper gut is no longer sterile and starts to ferment.
The kind of problems encountered in people with abnormal gut flora result from the fermentation of sugars and starches by yeasts and bad bacteria which form alcohol and gas. They are:
- Gut symptoms - irritable bowel syndrome (alternating constipation or diarrhoea)
- Stools like pellets, foul smelling offensive wind, indigestion, poor digestion and constipation.
- Carbohydrate craving and low blood sugar.
- Problems such as thrush and yeast infections on the skin.
- The development of allergies to foods;
- Leaky gut
- Crohn’s disease
- Ulcerative Colitis
Establishing a healthy micro flora in the gut involves taking in plenty of good bacteria while discouraging the growth of bad varieties. One of the most important steps that can be taken is to stop consuming white sugar, sugary foods and refined carbohydrates. Eating a healthy diet low in sugars, grains and processed foods will generally cause the good bacteria in your gut to flourish, and naturally build up a major defence against excessive amounts of bad bacteria that can damage your health. In adults and older children, one can also increase the body’s supply of good bacteria by eating plenty of properly fermented foods such as natto, kefir and unpasteurized sauerkraut. Even if you do not have any of the afore mentioned nasty symptoms the good bacteria in your gut are constantly under assault from factors like antibiotics, chlorinated water, and pollution, so it is a wise idea to “re -seed” your body with good bacteria on a regular basis by taking a high-quality probiotic supplement as the next paragraph explains.
When artificially cultured probiotics are eaten for a short while the levels of these probiotics in the gut do increase. However, as soon as we stop eating them the levels taper off and eventually disappear. This means there is something different between those bacteria that are acquired naturally from mother and those bacteria which are artificially introduced. It appears that for bacteria to be accepted into the normal gut and remain they have to be programmed first through somebody else's gut and normally this is the baby’s mother's gut. It is now known from the veterinary world that these educated bacteria can be introduced into another’s gut, where they remain even when the administration of these bacteria has ceased. This therefore explains how it is that the gut flora is so important but not very easy to put right again when things have gone wrong. If antibiotic use has produced dysbiosis, or a poor level of good bacteria and a higher level of bad bacteria, in the gut, there are two possible ways to remedy the situation: ideally we could to treat the person with bacteria which have already passed through somebody else's gut and are therefore programmed to remain or secondly they can be help themselves by taking a good quality probiotic on a regular basis throughout the rest of their lives. Since the former is not an option because these bacteria are not available commercially yet, thinking of taking a daily probiotic as being as essential as cleaning one’s teeth seems to be the best way to deal with this situation. There are lots of well formulated good probiotics to choose from.
Probiotics for the average healthy people will stabilise blood sugar levels and reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes, Syndrome X, heart disease, PCOS, cancer and all those problems arising from hyperglycaemia or poor insulin handling. Indeed, the idea of utilising probiotics by eating fermented foods has long been very popular in many human societies and is associated with good health and an extended life span!