In addition to getting a flu shot and washing your hands frequently, you may want to add some “beneficial” bacteria to your immune system defense this winter. Yes, despite what you’d think from the huge market of antibacterial products, not all bacteria are bad. In fact, the so-called “good bacteria” that inhabit your body help you combat viruses and infections and may even be the key to preventing certain diseases. They are also necessary for the proper digestion of food and assimilation of nutrients.
In addition to inhabiting your intestinal tract, beneficial bacteria also live in your ears and gum tissue and, researchers theororize, your appendix. Together, these bacterial colonies make up an important part of your immune system. When you’re healthy, the bacterial communities co-exist peacefully with the good bacteria, helping to keep the population growth of the bad in check. When your system is either temporarily or chronically thrown out of balance, however, (such as with “Traveler’s diarrhea”, inflammatory bowl disease, ulcers, tooth decay and periodontal disease, skin infections and/or the use of antibiotics) the healthful bacteria lose the battle to invading armies of harmful microorganisms.
The problem with antibiotic drugs is that while they destroy bacteria, they don’t discriminate between the good and bad, so they wipe out much of the bacteria colony in general (much like chemotherrapy knocks out healthy cells as well as cancer cells). Scientists believe it’s when bacterial populations get out of balance that, over time, the climate becomes ripe for chronic conditions such as diabetes, arthritis and even Alzheimer’s. Some studies have even attributed obesity to an excess of certain intestinal microbes that increase the body’s absorption of calories. Furthermore, recent research suggests the main function of the appendix is a storage place for beneficial bacteria. So if you’ve had appendix out – you may need to pay more attention to your intake of probiotics.
Fortunately, you can increase your population of friendly bacteria by consuming probiotics. Defined as “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit to the host”, probiotics can be found in cultured dairy products such as yogurt and kefir, as well as miso, tempeh, some soy beverages, and sauerkraut. However, unless you eat a lot of these foods, it’s difficult to obtain enough good bacteria, particularly if you are ill and/or taking antibiotics.
In addition to food sources of probiotics, supplements are also available in more concentrated amounts. These supplements can also be taken preventatively, for example when traveling to a foreign country. Furthermore, they help keep your intestinal tract working smoothly whether or not it’s under attack from unfriendly microorganisms such as disease-causing bacteria, yeasts, fungi or parasites. They also help you absorb nutrients from foods you eat and other supplements you take.
So as we enter the flu season, think about keeping your immune system strong by boosting your army of beneficial bacteria. Eating plenty of cultured dairy products or taking a probiotic supplement (particularly if you’ve been on a course of antibiotics), is prudent to keeping the ecology of your body balanced.