Strenuous training can affect the immune system and make athletes vulnerable to coughs and colds, but a study has shown that taking probiotics more than halves the days that runners show symptoms.
The study focused on 20 top-level endurance runners during their intensive winter training program. All 20 received two month-long courses of pills -- one containing the bacterium Lactobacillus fermentum, and the other containing no active ingredients.
There were a total of 72 days in which people taking the "dummy" pills complained of cough or cold symptoms, compared to only 30 days on the course of probiotics.
Although I rarely give much attention to supplements, probiotics is one of my exceptions. In fact, it’s the only supplement we recommend for all new patients in my clinic, unless they’re already on one. It’s not something you need to take for the rest of your life, however. But taking it for one to three months is usually beneficial, until you’ve improved your diet sufficiently.
Taking a high-quality probiotic and following sound dietary principles is the best way, I’ve found, to promote optimal health.
The reason for this is because 80 percent of your immune system is located in your digestive system, and a robust, well-functioning immune system is your number one defense system against all disease. So maintaining a healthy gut flora is far more important than you might think.
What are Probiotics, and Are They All the Same?
The term probiotics comes from the Greek word “for life.” (So now you also know what the word “antibiotics” really means.)
Most probiotics are bacteria, similar to those that occur in your gut naturally.
At any point in time there are about 500 different species of bacteria living inside you – totaling about SIXTY TRILLION bacteria -- they actually outnumber the cells in your body by about ten to one. Some of these bacteria are referred to as "good," and some as "bad". The key to good health is NOT to completely eradicate bad bacteria, but to maintain a healthy balance.
A healthy balance between them is 85 percent good and 15 percent bad. One of the critical factors that influence your state of health is this ratio between good and bad bacteria.
These beneficial bacteria are crucial for:
- the proper development of your immune system
- protection against over-growth of other microorganisms that could cause disease
- digestion of food and absorption of nutrients
There are two main groups of bacterial probiotics: Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Within each of these groups there are different species, and within each species there are different strains.
There are also a few common probiotics, such as Saccharomyces boulardii, which are yeasts rather than bacteria.
Even though I’ve come to the conclusion that no one solution works for everyone, the Bacillus Coagulans strain has been proven highly effective. It’s the one I use personally, and the one we recommend in my clinic. It's main benefits are that it is present in spore form, and survives the acidic environment of your stomach -- making it to your small intestine where it does the most good. They also survive high temperatures and do not need to be refrigerated, which adds convenience.
Health Benefits of Probiotics
A number of studies have proven the many health benefits of probiotics, including the prevention or control of:
- Food and skin allergies in children
- Premature labor in pregnant women
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Recurrent ear and bladder infections
- Chronic diarrhea
Why Would You Benefit From Probiotic Supplements?
The processed foods so inherent in most diets – especially in the western hemisphere -- can upset this fine balance of bacteria needed for the support of your intestinal health.
Additionally, many food products are pasteurized or sterilized in the production process, due to strict food safety regulations, which effectively destroys these helpful bacteria right along with the disease-causing ones.
It seems that in our collective zeal to rid ourselves of disease and every trace of bacteria in our food supply, as well as everywhere else, we may have outdone ourselves.
As a whole, we’re less exposed to bacteria now than in the past – both "bad" and "good" bacteria. Since helpful bacteria are increasingly absent in your food, it becomes even more important to purposely include foods that contain live probiotic bacteria in your diet, or take a probiotic supplement.
Selecting Live Foods For Optimal Health
Historically, people used fermented foods like yogurt and sauerkraut both as food preservatives to limit spoilage, and to support their intestinal and overall health.
- The Romans consumed sauerkraut as a delicious food, and for health-related issues
- In ancient Indian society, it was commonplace (and still is) to consume a before-dinner yogurt drink called a lassi, and at the end of the meal, a small serving of curd
- The Bulgarians are noted both for their longevity and their high consumption of fermented milk and kefir
- In Asian cultures, pickled fermentations of cabbage, turnips, eggplant, cucumbers, onions, squash, and carrots still exist today
Cultured foods like yogurt, some cheeses, and sauerkraut are good sources of natural, healthy bacteria. And fermented foods, such as natto, can give your body the similar benefits of consuming a whole bottle of good bacteria, but at a fraction of the cost.
One of the best and least expensive ways to get healthy bacteria through your diet is to obtain raw milk and convert it to kefir.
Kefir is very easy to make. Just put one half packet of the kefir start granules in a quart of raw milk at room temperature and leave it out over night. By the time you wake up in the morning you will likely have kefir. If it hasn’t obtained the consistency of yogurt you might want to set out a bit longer and then store it in the fridge.
The quart of kefir has far more active bacteria than you can possibly purchase in any probiotics supplement, and it is very economical as you can reuse the kefir from the original quart of milk about ten times before you need to start a new culture pack. Just one starter package of kefir granules can convert about 50 gallons of milk to kefir.
Don’t even think of using pasteurized milk, however, as you really don’t want to consume that at all.
Watch Out For Things That Will Disrupt Your Balance
There are two major ways you can throw your bacterial balancing act way off kilter:
1. When taking antibiotics. Antibiotics are indiscriminate killers. They destroy ALL bacteria, both good and bad, which is why side effects from taking antibiotics frequently include gas, cramping, or diarrhea.
2. Over-growth of “unfriendly” microorganisms, such as disease-causing bacteria, yeasts, fungi and parasites. This is often the case if you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, Candida, inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease), H. pylori infection, periodontal disease, vaginal infections, or other common stomach or respiratory infections.
Here we have yet another example of why sugar is so devastating for your health, because a high sugar diet plays a major role when it comes to maintaining proper bacterial balance in your intestines.
Because sugar is an incredibly efficient fertilizer for growing bad bacteria and yeast in your gut.
It does far more than cause yeast and Candida to grow, the anaerobic bacteria it supports are probably even more dangerous than the yeast.
Holding on to the belief that you can continue to eat sugar and maintain optimal health is like seeding your lawn with weeds and clover, and then wonder why your lawn is the worst in the neighborhood.
On the other hand, when you eat a healthy diet that is low in sugars and processed foods, one of the major benefits it produces is that it causes the good bacteria in your gut to flourish and build up a major defense against the bad bacteria getting a foothold on your health.