Did you know that your digestive tract is filled with bacteria? There are actually ten times more bacteria cells in your digestive tract than there are cells in your entire body: one hundred trillion bacteria compared to your ten trillion cells!
Because there are so many bacteria, and the good ones play such an important role in your health that they are called probiotics (pro = for, biotics = life), they are sometimes thought of as an extra helpful organ in your body.
Our digestive system is supposed to be filled mostly with good bacteria like Acidophilus species and Bifidobacter. When our gut is filled with good bacteria, they out-compete any bad bacteria that enter our bodies on food and drink, and prevent the bad guys from taking up residence.
The tables can quickly turn when we are exposed to too much bad bacteria at once (think potato salad that has sat out for hours at a long picnic) or when an antibiotic treatment kills not only the bad bugs, but most of the body’s healthy bacteria, too. The bad bacteria then have an opportunity to colonize the walls of the intestines, injure them, and cause problems, like severe diarrhea.
Not only do good bacteria crowd out the bad guys, good bacteria support our health in a number of other ways:
- Good bacteria digest fiber. Fiber is carbohydrate from plants that humans cannot digest, but bacteria can. Plant fiber not only provides good bacteria with food, but the byproducts of their digestion then serve as food for our intestinal cells. This is an unusual way for cells to be fed. Cells normally receive their nourishment from blood after food has been digested into nutrients and absorbed into the blood stream. In this case, the nutrients released from the fiber by good bacteria are not absorbed into the bloodstream, but feed the cells of the intestines directly.
- Good bacteria produce some B vitamins and vitamin K for the body’s use. B vitamins are essential for both energy production and nervous system function. Vitamin K is necessary for blood clotting and functions as an antioxidant.
- Good bacteria even help produce enzymes that digest drugs and hormones. Probiotic bacteria produce enzymes that not only detoxify potentially harmful compounds themselves, but communicate with our liver, telling it to increase its production of needed detoxification enzymes.
If you’re not convinced yet that it is natural and healthy to have bacteria living in your gut, here are some fascinating facts:
- When babies are born, their intestines are sterile, meaning that they are free of bacteria. Within 6 hours of birth, a baby will have over a billion organisms living in his or her gut.
- Breast milk contains not only good bacteria, but also a substance called bifido growth factor, which helps the probiotic bifido species of bacteria grow in the baby’s intestines.
- The profile of different species in a baby’s gut is affected by whether s/he was born vaginally or by caesarian, in a hospital or at home, fed breast milk or formula, and if the mother is exposed to antibiotics or antimicrobial herbs.
- By age 2, the baby’s digestive tract will reach the adult level of colonization: 100 trillion bacteria.
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