The world we live in abounds with microorganisms -- tiny, living organisms only visible under a microscope. Microorganisms include bacteria, viruses and yeast. This may make you instantly think of infection and disease, but not all bacteria are bad.
In fact, we need both to stay healthy.
There are various bacteria and microorganisms found in your digestive system that are beneficial to your health. These are your natural intestinal microflora or gut flora. They abound in the digestive tract, from the mouth all the way to the anus. However, most of these microorganisms are concentrated in the intestines. They provide support for various digestive processes as well as boosting the immune system to fight infection. Another benefit of these microorganisms is they protect the linings of the intestines and facilitate cell regeneration.
While the majority of the microorganisms in your digestive system can be classified as good bacteria, there are also bad bacteria lurking in your system. These are the pathogens that can cause disease and infection and bring about serious digestive problems. Pathogens can also damage the linings of the intestines and attack your immune system.
A ratio of 80 percent good bacteria and 20 percent bad bacteria is necessary to maintain a healthy balance of microorganisms in the body. At birth, you start out with a relatively balanced intestinal microflora. As you age the balance of good and bad bacteria in your digestive system can become disrupted due to a number of factors including poor diet, alcohol, stress and the natural aging process.
Taking antibiotic substances to treat occasional infections and sickness also accounts for a decrease in beneficial microorganisms. Antibiotics not only ward off disease-causing germs and microorganisms, but also target the good bacteria in your system. Once the balance is disrupted, harmful bacteria can take over and cause serious problems such as diarrhea, constipation, gastrointestinal infection, ulcers and colon cancer. An overgrowth of bad bacteria can also lead to immune system disorders.
The Importance of Probiotics
Probiotics are among the good bacteria that are beneficial to your health. They are aptly named because these microorganisms are essential to life due to their many functions, especially in the digestive process. Probiotics can be obtained from the food you eat or from dietary supplements. Taking probiotic supplements and consuming food and drinks fortified with probiotics is a good way to restore the balance of good microorganisms in your system. They also help the natural gut flora to recover and thrive again, and make sure the population of harmful bacteria are kept at a minimum.
Probiotics help reduce cases of constipation and diarrhea. They also strengthen the immune system against infection. Another benefit of probiotics is the enhancement of nutrient absorption during digestion. Probiotics help break down the amino acids, vitamins and minerals in the food you eat and facilitate their passage through the intestinal walls. Because they fight the growth of harmful bacteria, probiotics also help free your body from harmful toxins that can cause serious disorders.
Examples of food sources for probiotics are fermented milk, yogurt and soy milk. The probiotics in these food sources can be naturally present or artificially added during preparation.
Choosing Your Probiotics
The most common groups of probiotics are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. These groups are further subdivided into species and each species also has different varieties called “strains.” Some probiotic strains are called "residents" because they are naturally found in the digestive system. If you take these kinds of probiotic supplements, they can easily reestablish themselves in the intestinal environment. "Transient" strains are those that just pass through the digestive system, but are very effective in fighting infection while present in your body.
Now that you know about probiotics, you may never look at bacteria the same way again. Just remember, not all bacteria are bad -- they are just misunderstood.