Sunday, March 15, 2009

Tending Your Intestinal Garden

A reader from upstate New York had taken a job at a local health food store and asked about probiotics, which she was getting many requests for from her customers.

Even most doctors know enough now to recommend some kind of probiotic, if only a yogurt a day, to their patients who've been prescribed an antibiotic. Which ones and how many are a bit more complicated.

In order to get some perspective on the role these things play in overall health, I'll refer to an earlier post here where I compared the intestines to a faulty car exhaust. By way of review, if a car exhaust leaks carbon monoxide back into the car, that's bad. Intestinal leakage back into the body, same thing.

Our digestive system, from beginning to end, comprises over half of our bodies surface area. At a glance, that may seem far fetched, but if you remember your high school biology, the intestines, both small and large, are not smooth stretches of pipe, but convoluted, pocketed organs. The villi and diverticuli are nooks and crannies, that if you stretched them out, would cover a lot of ground.

Hopefully, it isn't too big a leap to think that, if this is over half of our bodies surface area, a similar amount of our immune activity will take place there. This does appear to be the case. Good intestinal flora are critical for good immune function. If there's one key to a long and healthy life, it's a healthy, properly functioning immune system. Just type the words intestinal flora and immune health into and you'll find about 100 studies, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. It's important.

Visualize your intestines as a garden, with bad, disease causing bacteria as weeds that threaten to choke out good, flowering probiotic strains. Think of populating your intestines with probiotics as tending your intestinal garden.

There are many, many strains of probiotics, the most researched being lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacteria bifidum, aka acididopilus and bifidus. Saccharomyces boulardii, a probiotic yeast, is, also, of keen interest to researchers because of its, apparent, ability to resist antibiotics.

You want to get them past your stomach and into your intestines and have them colonize. This is easier said, than done, as the stomach tends to be acidic, the intestines alkaline, and their survival on a trip over terrain that varied is difficult. For this reason, good probiotic supplements will have cultures numbering in the billions. Not all the soldiers survive the trip.

Napolean had a line, "An army travels on its stomach." This probiotic army is no exception. The food it eats are complex sugars known as prebiotics, mainly inulin, found in jerusalem artichokes, chicory, garlic, and FOS(fructo-oligosaccharides). Prebiotics help probiotics adhere to the intestinal wall, and enhance the likelihood that the colony will survive. Many of the more advanced blends on the market contain both pre and pro biotics.

Probiotic blends that are live cultures must be refrigerated. Although there are many non-refrigerated, soil based bacteria forms on the shelves of health food stores, they really don't work very well.

Also, it's best to take them between meals. Probiotics have difficulty sticking to the intestinal walls if they are taken with food.

Finally, this is about far more than simple, good digestive health, or something to do to counter an antibiotic. Good intestinal flora is crucial in the management of virtually every auto-immune disorder, from rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, all the inflammatory bowel issues, asthma, allergies, psoriasis, eczema, cancer, autism, the list goes on. There are a handful of supplements that I tell clients are non-negotiable. A good probiotic is on that short list.