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Probiotics: A New Role for an Old Bug!

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Whenever we are under stress, our imune system comes under attack.  When stresses are continuous, we need to get all the help we can.  That's why we are taking a new look at an old ally: bacteria.

For over a century we have known that bacteria live normally in and on our bodies, but when out of balance, many of them can take over and cause disease or fatalities.  Not unlike the plant world, where one rogue weed can take over a whole field, choking out all competitors.

 As an example, our mouths contain many organisms like strep and staph bacteria every day, as we can demonstrate with throat cultures.  But if one gets the upper hand, it can take over, causing systemic  diseases like septicaemia, bacterial colitis (with c. difficile the usual culprit), or MRSA (the flesh eating disease).  Other complications develop if our normal flora is out of balance.  For example if we take antibiotics to kill an infection (for example earache) then all the bacteria will be subject to being wiped out, including the “good” ones.  So that’s why other opportunistic organisms like thrush can develop during treatments, as seen with white oral patches, or with vaginal discharge.  Many of my patients will note these side effects of ANTI-biotics, and have come to appreciate the good effects of “PRO-biotics”. 

In the old days, before dairy products were pasteurized (done to get rid of “bad” bacteria), lactobacilli lived normally in milk, cheeses, and yogurt.  Civilizations that consumed these had good health benefits.  In fact this was their only defense against infectious diseases prior to modern antibiotics.  But now that foods are sanitized, most of these bacteria are rendered inert, so a strategy is needed to replace the good bacteria.  In doing so we also booster our whole immune systems, not just the gut.

That’s why a daily dose of probiotics can make a lot of sense.  Certain foods like Miso soup are a good source.   If you like cheeses or yogurt, try some of the unpasteurized kinds if you can find them.  If not, try the pill route, usually a single capsule daily.  The contents of one capsule are billions of live cultures of acidophilus, but none  actually enters the body.  It only rests in the lining of the gut, in particular the colon, and never crosses into the blood stream.  Research shows its salutary effects on lowering risks of colon cancer or colitis to improving our defense against recurring colds or chest infections. 

While probiotics are not essential, there are a few conditions that would be a good fit for them:

1.       If your doctor has prescribed antibiotics to kill a bad bacteria, remember that the good ones also are going to be decimated; so take probiotics for the duration of treatment. Just don’t put them both in the stomach at the same time; the probiotics will survive better if the antibiotics have been given at least three hours earlier, and will have cleared out of the stomach by then.    

2.       If you are prone to repeated infections, whether vaginal, or common colds or bowel disorders, consider taking probiotics for longer term use. 

3.       If you are at risk for infections, such as beginning a new job with exposure to children or to the general public, then probiotics would be good for the duration of your exposure, eg the school year, or the flu season etc.  Ask your doctor or pediatrician for advice about your children as they begin daycare or school.

4.       For hospitalized or elder-care patients where serious infections can break out at any time, daily probiotics would be very sensible.

Ask your doctor or your naturopath for specific brand advice; but remember that live bacteria are more likely to survive in the refrigerator, just like the milk or yougurt they come from; so look for them in the refrigerated section of your vitamin or grocery store.  For more info, check the following:

http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/probiotics/AN00389

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Probiotics

 

For more on the dangers of MRSA: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0004520/

 

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