Probiotics (cont.)

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What is the gut?

A "gut feeling" or a "gut reaction" to something is a description of a sense you have about it without knowing why. This probably comes from the fact that many people experience their emotions in their stomach or gut area. Think about where you would physically feel a "gut feeling." Research has shown that the network of neurons lining our guts is so extensive that is has now been nicknamed our "second brain" or "other brain." This gut "brain" doesn't think for us, but it does play a key role in certain diseases and communicates with the brain in our skulls.

Our "second brain" is known as the enteric nervous system. It is a collection of neurons in the gastrointestinal tract. Its role is to manage every aspect of digestion in all the organs of the gastrointestinal tract, including the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and colon. It uses over 100 million neurons and some of the same chemicals things that can be found in your "other" brain, including neurotransmitters and neuropeptides.

Within your gastrointestinal tract, there is intestinal microflora or microbiota. This complex ecosystem contains over 400 bacterial species. Small amounts can be found in your stomach and small intestines, but the majority is found in your colon. The intestinal microflora aid in digestion, synthesize vitamins and nutrients, metabolize some medications, support the development and functioning of the gut, and enhance the immune system.

What are the health benefits of probiotics?

Probiotics may seem new to the food and supplement industry, but they have been with us from our first breath. During a delivery through the birth canal, a newborn picks up bacteria from his/her mother. These good bacteria are not transmitted when a Cesarean section is performed and have been shown to be the reason why some infants born by Cesarean section have allergies, less than optimal immune systems, and lower levels of gut microflora.

Probiotics are believed to protect us in two ways. The first is the role that they play in our digestive tract. We know that our digestive tract needs a healthy balance between the good and bad bacteria, so what gets in the way of this? It looks like our lifestyle is both the problem and the solution. Poor food choices, emotional stress, lack of sleep, antibiotic overuse, other drugs, and environmental influences can all shift the balance in favor of the bad bacteria.

When the digestive tract is healthy, it filters out and eliminates things that can damage it, such as harmful bacteria, toxins, chemicals, and other waste products. On the flip side, it takes in the things that our body needs (nutrients from food and water) and absorbs and helps deliver them to the cells where they are needed.

The idea is not to kill off all of the bad bacteria. Our body does have a need for the bad ones and the good ones. The problem is when the balance is shifted to have more bad than good. An imbalance has been associated with diarrhea, urinary tract infections, muscle pain, and fatigue.

The other way that probiotics help is the impact that they have on our immune system. Some believe that this role is the most important. Our immune system is our protection against germs. When it doesn't function properly, we can suffer from allergic reactions, autoimmune disorders (for example, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, and rheumatoid arthritis), and infections (for example, infectious diarrhea, Helicobacter pylori, skin infections, and vaginal infections). By maintaining the correct balance from birth, the hope would be to prevent these ailments. Our immune system can benefit anytime that balanced is restored, so it's never too late.


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