If you are in the habit of scrubbing your hands, your home and your children with bacteria-fighting gels and soaps, consider this: The average adult intestine has already been colonized by more than 500 species of microbes. Our bodies contain more bacterial cells than human cells, although bacteria take up much less space by comparison. Occasionally, the invaders turn harmful, as when the population of Streptococcus or Staphylococcus germs gets out of control. But overall, the armies of microbes in our intestines—called gut flora—seem to be on a mission to keep our immune and digestive systems in good health. Research shows that beneficial bugs called probiotic bacteria produce chemicals that help us glean nutrients and energy from our food. They also help build up the population of intestinal immune cells. Scientists continue to investigate the connection between gut flora and the body’s response to stress and anxiety.
All of this good news about probiotic bacteria in our bodies has heightened interest in consuming more probiotics. Probiotic foods can help in treatment of diarrhea, vaginal yeast infections and urinary tract infections. There is evidence that probiotics help reduce the severity of colds and flu, speed recovery from some intestinal infections and improve irritable bowel syndrome symptoms. Fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir and sauerkraut are high in Lactobacillus acidophilus (in purple above) and Bifidobacterium longum (in green above), two common probiotic bacteria. Other healthful probiotic foods are miso soup, naturally fermented pickles, small amounts of probiotic dark chocolate (hooray!) and blue-green algae. Since your natural population of probiotic bacteria is sizable, eating such foods should be seen as a maintenance plan, to help you keep your body in balance. With that in mind, be prudent about the use of antibiotics. If your doctor prescribes an antibiotic to fight a serious infection, ask if you should also consume more probiotics, to replace those wiped out by the antibiotic drug.
Learn more about how beneficial bacteria colonize your intestines during infancy:
TheVisualMD.com: Gut & Immune Development