The most important health concept

What would you say if someone told you that you are about to be introduced to the most important health-care concept of the 21st century?

Well, you areā€¦so read on.

Did you know your gastrointestinal tract, which begins at your mouth and ends at your anus, is your gateway to health or disease? This system, which is an amazing 27 feet long, is your fuelling station as well as your waste-management system. I'm sure you've heard many stories about the importance of bowel cleansers to detoxify your colon and that fibre is an important preventative to the ravages of colon cancer. But, unfortunately few people have been properly informed of the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the importance of beneficial bacteria to human health and longevity.

While bowel cleansers may eliminate toxins, and fibre may help improve the transit time, they also strip bacteria off the intestinal wall, which may alter the balance unfavourably of the 100 trillion bacteria that are residents on the intestinal wall. Additionally, the cleansers or fibre do nothing to help our body police an additional astronomical load of bacteria that pass through our bodies every day, making up at least 40% of our dry-weight faecal matter.

Other factors in today's stressful world contribute to the loss of beneficial bacteria in the body. Stress, pollution, changes in
diet, even the aging process, can lead to a depletion of beneficial bacteria in the body and cause digestive upsets such as diarrhoea, constipation, gas and indigestion. Some organisms we encounter daily are not only unfriendly, they are downright dangerous and possibly deadly. However, beneficial bacteria, known as probiotics, help protect you from the onslaught of disease-causing microorganisms. They defend the body against bad bacteria (pathogens), detrimental fungi and viruses. As long as the body's immune system remains strong, the resident pathogens keep a low profile. But, in order to understand how probiotics are beneficial, it is important to understand what is happening in the body.

Bacteria in the Body

Most people are unaware of the 2kg's of 400 different species of micro-organisms teeming within their intestinal tracts. Food and water consumed on a daily basis contain large amounts of these unseen microorganisms. Most are excreted as dry-weight faecal matter. The stomach contains small amounts, if any, of these microorganisms due to a formidable acid barrier that minimizes their survival; however, as food travels through the intestinal tract, the number and varieties of microorganisms increase.

The large intestine, which includes the colon, houses the greatest number of micro-organisms and the widest assortment.
A complex social structure and a diverse pecking order exist among these microorganisms. It is important to know how to effectively encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria while minimizing the proliferation of the unfriendly ones.

Beneficial bacteria, also referred to as lactic bacteria, are single-celled organisms which occur singly, in pairs and in short chains. They have the ability to transform sugar into lactic acid. Beneficial bacteria are abundant in nature and are extremely useful. Their capacity to survive through the gastrointestinal tract in spite of gastric acidity and bile salt toxicity is essential for beneficial bacteria to have any biological effect on the body. They are normally present in the skin, the mouth, the digestive system and the vaginal mucosa of humans, where they perform numerous and indispensable functions to protect their hosts against harmful bacteria.

When beneficial bacteria turn lactose (milk sugar) into lactic acid, the lactic acid functions as a digestive antiseptic and facilitates the absorption of calcium and phosphorus in milk products more efficiently. When the population of beneficial bacteria in the intestine is increased, vitamin B6 is produced. This function helps boost the immune system. Beneficial bacteria minimize the proliferation of many dangerous pathogens responsible for illness or death by competing with them for homes on the intestinal walls.

Unfriendly microorganisms come in many varieties: hostile (disease-causing) and chameleons (beneficial or neutral under certain conditions but capable of becoming unfriendly if allowed to spread and grow too quickly). Chameleon microorganisms allowed to proliferate may become harmful by creating an infection or by assisting hostile microorganisms in accelerating an illness.

One good example of a chameleon microorganism is the yeast, Candida albicans. Normally, yeast organisms comprise 10% of the 2kgs of microorganisms in our intestinal tract. When the delicate balance of friendly microorganisms, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum are upset, yeast proliferates rapidly. This aggressive and uncontrolled growth allows the yeast to actually change its form to a pathogenic fungus, which can trigger a host of symptoms and health problems.

Another chameleon microorganism is Bacillus cereus, a soil bacteria that can cause nausea, abdominal cramps and diarrhoea. Found in cereals, herbs and dried foods, this microorganism is harmless unless its spores are allowed to multiply uncontrollably

Origins of Probiotics

The usefulness of probiotics has been known for thousands of years. In fact, the ability of beneficial bacteria to transform milk into something with greater keeping ability and dietary attractiveness was recorded as far back as 6,000 years ago in Sumerian tablets regarding cheese-making. Throughout most of history, food has been used as medicine as well as nourishment. The revered Greek physician Hippocrates said, "Let your food be your medicine and your medicine your food."

Milk products transformed by the lactobacilli were more easily digested and stayed edible longer. Such products improved appetite and were helpful in the treatment of dysentery, peptic ulcer, diarrhoea and similar disorders.

Metchnikoff Comes on the Scene

In 1908, Elie Metchnikoff, a Nobel Prize recipient working at the Pasteur Institute, observed that Bulgaria had an incredible number of people who lived more than 100 years. This Balkan country was one of the least advanced countries in Europe and had just emerged from being a poorly administered region of the Turkish Empire, so Metchnikoff believed modern medicine was not the reason people lived such long lives.

Metchnikoff found that the Bulgarians ate large quantities of home-grown vegetables and a lot of yogurt. Vegetables did not seem to be a probable longevity factor to Metchnikoff, so he looked into the yogurt.

Louis Pasteur had discovered the mechanism of lactic fermentation. He found a way to hinder lactic fermentation by heating milk enough to kill the fermenting bacteria. Pasteurization kept the milk from harmfully spoiling, so it promoted health. Now a Pasteur researcher was finding health-promoting capabilities in beneficially "spoiled" milk and the creatures who spoiled it.

Metchnikoff's work was the first proof of lactobacilli's ability to transform lactose into lactic acid, and he reasoned that the acidity produced would provide a hostile environment for pathogenic bacteria. This theory proved to be correct. Many dangerous disease-producing organisms die or fail to develop in milk containing lactobacilli.

Metchnikoff became a firm advocate of the concept that diet can protect the body from the invasion of pathogens and help people live longer lives. He was the first person to take beneficial bacteria and make a therapeutic preparation from it. He took lactobacilli, made it in tablet form which people took orally and called it lactobacillin.