"Probiotic" means "for life;" antibiotic means "against life."
The life referred to is your life, interacting with bacteria that live inside you, both friendly and hostile.
The World Health Organization defines probiotics as "live organisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit to the host."
You are the host and your guests, invited and uninvited, weigh a total of nearly 3 pounds.
There are trillions of bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract, 10 times as many bacteria as there are cells in your entire body.
The healthy ratio of bacteria is about 80 percent good to 20 percent bad. An imbalance of bacteria, called dysbiosis, can cause symptoms such as gas, bloating, intestinal and systemic toxicity, constipation and malabsorption of nutrients.
Factors that contribute to imbalance include high sugar diets, physical stress, parasites, antibacterial soaps, chlorinated water, radiation and oral contraceptives.
In addition, you are surrounded by harmful bacteria. They exist under your fingernails, on eating utensils, and on raw meats and vegetables.
More than 500 different strains of probiotics fight against disease-causing bacteria. The two most prevalent are lactobacillus acidophilus (in the small intestine) and bifidobacterium bifidum (in the large intestine).
Healthy children have a higher ratio of bifidum. In adults, these levels decline. Mother's milk provides the bifido strain. Babies on formulas are more prone to diarrhea.
The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that 95 percent of children in the U.S. have been treated with antibiotics for middle ear infections by age 5. The antibiotics further reduce the population of friendly bacteria.
Antibiotics can be life saving, but overuse leads to the growth of resistant strains of harmful bacteria.
Antibiotics are also delivered to us in meat and dairy products from cows that are routinely fed antibiotics. Many people develop an overgrowth of the fungus candida albicans after repeated antibiotic use. The yeast grows in the intestines, vagina, lungs, mouth (thrush) and under fingernails. Researchers are now beginning to advocate antibiotic/probiotic combinations to treat such conditions as female urinary and genital tract infections and diarrhea.
Probiotics offer protection against "Montezuma's Revenge" and have been called "the traveler's best friend."
Research has shown that pro-biotics support a healthy immune system, increase the activity of white blood cells and stimulate antibody production. Probiotics can be effective for inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. These friendly organisms can help eliminate bad breath and flatulence and help clear up certain skin conditions.
Back in 1908, Nobel Prize winner Eli Metchnikoff suggested that Bulgarian peasants lived such long and healthy lives because of the fermented dairy products they ate. Throughout history, people around the world have consumed friendly bacteria in fermented foods such as miso, tempeh, sauerkraut, sourdough bread and beer. Before refrigeration, these bacteria were literally life saving.
For Americans, our most convenient source of good bacteria is cultured yogurt. Look for unpasteurized, live cultures, and avoid added sugar and preservatives. Check the expiration date and remember, heat kills good bacteria. When you need higher potency for treatment or prevention, you will find capsules with guaranteed potencies in various strengths. There are targeted formulas made by trusted companies for specific age groups or conditions, such as urinary or vaginal support, or for use along with antibiotics.
Now, a century after Mr. Metchnikoff, his theory is being validated.
"Taking a quality probiotic supplement today is as important to your health as taking a multiple vitamin and mineral formula," writes S.K. Dash in, "A Consumer's Guide to Probiotics."
Colon care specialist, Dr. Brenda Watson agrees.
"I personally feel if a person could take only one supplement, it should be a good combination of the friendly bacteria," she said.
The information in this article is for educational purposes. Consult your physician if you have a medical condition.
Margot Bennett is a licensed nutritionist at Mother Nature's Pantry, located in the Garden Square Shoppes, 4513 PGA Blvd. in Palm Beach Gardens. Call her at (561) 626-4461.