At the end of last month’s article, we learned that natural prevention and healing methods for bacterial infections have always existed and continue to be used. Long before “modern medicine”, different herbs, foods, and natural treatments were used to prevent and treat illness and disease. These natural remedies are often more beneficial to us in fighting infections as they do not contribute to the problem of antibiotic resistance. They also work on improving immune system function to combat illness. And, finally we posed two questions: How do we to know when to use natural methods vs antibiotics? And, what are the foods, herbs and treatments that can help us? We will learn the answers this month and next month.
OUR GUT MICROBIOME
The collection of microorganisms in the gut—our microbiome—is very large. As many as 500 to 1,000 species of bacteria inhabit our intestines, and the roughly 100 trillion microorganisms in those species are around 10 times greater than the number of cells in our body. When all is well, good bacteria make up about 90% of the gut microbes. The role of many of these bacteria is to help to digest our food. Research shows that some of the bacteria in our bodies actually boost the production of certain cells in our immune system and protect against a numbers of illnesses. However, factors such as stress, illness and medications can affect the balance of good vs bad bacteria, and lead to further disorders such a gastro-intestinal distress, inflammation, eczema, yeast infections, a weakened immune system, diarrhea or constipation.
WHAT ARE PROBIOTICS?
Probiotics are one of the most incredible discoveries in the last decade. The research into the health benefits of probiotics has only recently started to gain more attention. Probiotics are live bacteria contained in yogurt, other dairy products and in supplement form. They are made up of hundreds of different species and strains of good bacteria that can safely live in your intestines. Taking probiotics work to boost and preserve the natural gut flora (good bacteria) found in your digestive system. Research has proven that a balanced gut is one of the keys to overall wellness and cancer prevention. Certain probiotic species have been shown to be helpful for childhood diarrhea, irritable bowel disease, and for certain bowel infections.
Diarrhea, a common side effect of antibiotics, also results from the antibiotic altering the normal intestinal bacteria, and causes overgrowth of disease-causing bacteria, such as C. difficile, which can kill the elderly and those who are ill with other diseases. When antibiotics are used to treat an infection, not only does it destroy the disease-causing bacteria, but it also destroys many of the healthy bacteria in our body, specifically in our gut. This can lead to further infections, as the healthy bacteria in our gut protect us from bad bacteria. When healthy bacteria are killed, disease-causing bacteria can proliferate and make us sick. When you are sick, the good probiotic bacteria that normally live in your gut may get damaged or killed in the fight to make you better. These good bacteria are so critical to your health that doctors now recommend a probiotic while their patients are on antibiotics. Eating foods or supplements of probiotics helps your body to get its full protection back.
Most people do not need to take a probiotic every day. Probiotics are still not clearly known to provide health benefits to otherwise healthy people. Some are suspected but still not proven. However, if you are trying to treat a particular problem, make sure your probiotic contains the specific strains that can combat what you are battling. Some strains have been tested and proven to have a positive impact on certain digestive conditions.
Probiotics are available in most health food stores and pharmacies. However, picking a probiotic is more complicated than buying vitamins, and often the quality of probiotic supplements is not consistent. An independent agency that tests vitamins and supplements found that 30% of probiotic products did not contain the amount of live bacteria claimed on the label. Probiotic bacteria must be kept alive in order to work. They may be killed by heat, stomach acid or simply die with time.
VITAL INFORMATION IN THE LABELLING OF PROBIOTICS
When reading a probiotic label, the following list offers tips on what to look for before buying a product. Label information should always include:
Genus, species and strain of the microorganisms (Lactobacillus reuteri ATCC55730, for example). Many products list only the genus and species, but different strains provide different benefits.
Number of organisms contained in a single dose and how often you should take it. Pick one that has at least seven strains, and five billion CFU (colony forming units).
Storage information when relevant (some forms need to be refrigerated while others need a dark, cool space). Always keep probiotics away from moisture and heat.
“Viable through end of shelf life” ensures the living microbes are in fact still living. Pass on the probiotic if the label says “viable at time of manufacture,” which means everything in it could be dead by the time it reaches your mouth. If you are buying yogurt, look for “live and active cultures.”
Encapsulated pills or other delayed-rupture technology ensure the bacteria survive the trip through your acidic stomach and actually reach your colon.
Certification by an independent third party. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate most probiotics and therefore the amount of bacteria stated on the label might not be what’s actually in there. Make sure it has been tested.
SPECIFIC PROBIOTIC STRAINS SHOWN TO PROVIDE HEALTH BENEFITS
The most common probiotic bacteria come from two genus groups: Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium, although there are many others. Each group of bacteria has different species and each species have different strains (the “code” at the end). Researchers are still studying which strains are useful for which health conditions, but a handful have been demonstrated to help with the following:
Traveling abroad. Taking Saccharomyces boulardii weeks before your trip may help prevent traveler’s diarrhea, which usually comes from ingesting food or water that has been contaminated with bacteria.
Lactose intolerance. Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Lactobacillus acidophilus and Streptococcus thermophilus produce the enzyme “lactase” that helps the gut digest and absorb lactose.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or gastrointestinal distress. Bifidobacterium infantis 35624, Lactobacillus plantarum 299V or Bifidobacterium bifidum MIMBb75 have been shown to help regulate bowel movements and relieve bloating, pain and gas.
When taking antibiotics. Take Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG and/orSaccharomyces boulardii six hours after each dose of antibiotics. Increase the dose to 10 billion CFUs per day and continue for one to two weeks after you stop taking the antibiotic.
Eczema. Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001 and Lactobacillus fermentum VRI-003 PCC have been shown to help treat those itchy, scaly skin rashes—especially in children.
Colds and flu. Bifidobacterium animalis lactis Bi-07 and Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM can help reduce the duration and severity of the common cold and flu by enhancing the body’s production of antibodies.
Yeast infections. Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1 and Lactobacillus reuteri RC-14 have been shown to help prevent and clear up bacterial vaginosis and urinary tract infections in some individuals. Lactobacillus reuteri RC-14 and Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1 are the most effective stains to protect against yeast infections.
Bad breath, gingivitis or periodontitis. A probiotic lozenge or mouthwash might be your best bet. Lactobacillus reuteri LR-1 or LR-2 promote oral health by binding to teeth and gums, preventing plaque formation in the mouth. Weissella cibaria freshens
breath by inhibiting the production of sulfur compounds in the mouth.
Your pharmacist, naturopath and doctor are good resources when deciding which probiotic to use.
Currently research is being done in treating intestinal problems such as Crohn’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease, inflammatory bowel syndrome, and ulcerative colitis, with probiotics. Also, scientists think some probiotics may lower cholesterol or blood pressure. Probiotics may also help us get the most nutrients from the food we eat, and perhaps to even prevent food poisoning.
WHEN TO USE NATURAL METHODS VS ANTIBIOTICS
Minor bacterial infections can be cleared naturally without having to rely on an antibiotic. For example, often when women are suffering from a Urinary Tract Infection, the infection will clear itself within 48 hours as the body’s natural immune response kicks in, especially when helped along with plenty of water and cranberry capsules. Doctors will sometimes carry out ‘delayed prescribing’, where they write a prescription but instruct the patient to wait for 48 hours before picking it up. This delayed prescribing is carried out by well-informed doctors, with the understanding that the infection will often clear itself in 48 hours, and if it is to do so, it would be better for the patient to wait—not only better for overall health, but also for the general population in helping to prevent antibiotic resistance. During this time, natural immune boosters added to our diet can also assist in fighting an infection.
In light of this, steps must be taken to slow the progress of antibiotic resistance, and to change the way we use and prescribe antibiotics. Because of this, natural remedies which provide an alternative to antibiotics would be an obvious option.
For example, a recent study determined that there appears to be plenty of evidence to suggest that gut microbes, and the health of the gastrointestinal tract itself, may be contributing factors in the acne process. As a result, taking an antibiotic may further reduce the health of the gut whereas taking a probiotic may help to improve gut flora with a potentially positive outcome
While there is increased research into probiotics, science is not yet at a stage where doctors can determine whether patients should be taking probiotics or antibiotics. Therefore, wherever there is a question regarding taking probiotics or antibiotics, for now, until more research is done about probiotics, taking the two together should be encouraged; the question should not be whether probiotics should be chosen over antibiotics.
While probiotics have been shown effective in managing certain gastrointestinal conditions, they do not have the same power that prebiotics do.
Once you have the right balance of probiotics in your gut, it is important to keep them strong and healthy. The bacteria in your colon thrive on something known as prebiotics. These chemicals are different from probiotics, as prebiotics are found in food sources. A prebiotic is a general term that refers to chemicals that promote the growth of good bacteria that then contribute to the well-being of their host. Prebiotics were first identified in 1995. In people, most prebiotics work in the gastrointestinal tract (gut), contributing to the proper balance of bacteria referred to as the gut microbiome. Prebiotics are derived from specific non-digestible plant fibers that pass through the gastrointestinal tract undigested, however they nourish the good bacteria in the colon and contribute to the well-being of the individual.
These fibers act as a fertilizer to promote the growth of good bacteria in the gut. This in turn prevents the bad, disease-causing bacteria from reproducing. Foods that are high in prebiotic fibers provide health benefits that result from the proper balance of good bacteria. Certain foods are high in the prebiotic fibers called inulin and oligosaccharides. Unlike the research into the benefits of probiotics, which is still in its infancy, prebiotics have been proven to provide a wide range of health benefits to the otherwise healthy person.
Once the intestines have the proper bacterial mix by consuming prebiotics, when food enters the intestine, fermentation takes place to digest the food; this helps beneficial bacteria to multiply while stifling the production of bad, disease-causing bacteria. When good bacteria multiply, they strengthen the walls of the lower gut, which is where production of hormones take place that help the body maintain optimal health.
Prebiotic fiber is found in many fruits and vegetables. The foods highest in prebiotics include chicory root (highest), Jerusalem artichoke, dandelion greens, garlic, leek, onions, beans, raw oats, asparagus, wheat bran, whole wheat flour, and bananas.
Prebiotics can also be purchased as a supplement and can be added to most foods. Unlike probiotics, they are not affected by heat, cold, acid, or time. Research has shown that as well as protecting us from bad bacteria, prebiotics help to prevent obesity, assist in absorbing calcium and magnesium, reduces bad cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and decreases the risk of chronic intestinal disorders. Some of the oligosaccharides that naturally occur in breast milk are believed to play an important role in the development of a healthy immune system in infants. Babies who are breast fed vs those who are fed by formula, have a much lower incidence of infections because they receive prebiotics and also antibodies against infections from the mother, through her breast milk.
A recommended daily amount of prebiotics for digestive health has not been established. However, experts suggest that an effective amount is probably in the range of 5 to 15 grams per day. In the US, average intake of inulin from plant foods is about 1 to 4 grams per day. The best way to determine if a food product contains prebiotics is to check the ingredient list. The most common prebiotic ingredients are inulin and oligofructose. Most foods with added prebiotics from inulin or oligofructose supply about 2 to 4 grams per serving, although some products may contain more. Eating foods that are high in prebiotics will help you reach the daily amount that will provide you with its health benefits.
If you want to increase the amount of prebiotic foods in your diet, it is a good idea to do so gradually to prevent possible temporary discomforts, such as gas, bloating or cramps, which may occur for some people with intake of more than 10 grams per day. Remember that many prebiotics supply fiber, and fiber intake should be increased slowly, along with taking in adequate amounts of fluid. The type of food and prebiotic ingredient may influence whether you experience side effects. For example, solid foods with prebiotics are often better tolerated than liquids, and foods with inulin may be better tolerated because the prebiotic acts more slowly in the intestines.
The following list includes the foods highest in prebiotics. In brackets is the prebiotic fiber content by weight, followed by the amount of food required to obtain 6 g of prebiotic fiber. The list is in order of greatest amount of prebiotics per weight, to least amount:
- Raw chicory root (64.6%) – 1/3 oz or 9 grams
- Raw Jerusalem artichoke (31.5%) – 3/4 oz or 21 grams
- Raw dandelion greens (24.3%) – 1 oz or 28 grams
- Raw garlic (17.5%) – 1.2 oz or 34 grams
- Raw leek (11.7%) – 1.8 oz or 51 grams
- Raw onion (8.6%) – 2.5 oz or 70 grams
- Cooked onion (5%) – 1/4 lb, or 4 oz or 113 grams
- Raw banana (1%) – 1.3 lb or 590 grams
These natural remedies can be used to prevent bacterial infections, and in combating minor infections. However, many bacterial illnesses are caused by unhealthy practices. For example, a form of malnutrition that is surprisingly common even in developed countries is known as “micronutrient malnutrition.” Micronutrient malnutrition is when a person is deficient in some essential vitamins and trace minerals that are obtained from, or supplemented by, one’s diet. This type of malnutrition has been shown to increase a person’s risk for infections. Use natural healing whenever possible, however medicine can save lives in acute situations, e.g. heart attack, stroke, severe infection. The effect of disease on those afflicted can also be lessened by healthful practices, and often the use of drugs can be prevented or stopped. This series of articles have provided information that balances the benefits of modern medicine and adherence to God’s laws of nature, for maintaining the health of our bodies. However, the promotion of a healthy lifestyle and the use of natural remedies to prevent and treat disease is always our first message to the world.