Your gut is loaded with approximately 100 trillion bacteria, outnumbering your own cells by around a factor of ten. Linked end-to-end, the micro-organisms we carry around could circle the globe two and a half times, and without them, none of us could digest any food. Knowing this, it’s no surprise that we owe much of our health to the “good” bacteria that inhabit the dark, dank labyrinth of our bowels.
A healthy body depends on a healthy gut, and a healthy gut cannot exist without bacteria. We have all heard of antibiotics, drugs that save countless lives by eliminating disease-causing bacteria. Few of us are familiar with probiotics, the friendly bacteria which, when taken in sufficient amounts, can make people healthier. The very term probiotic means “for life,” and current research suggests that beneficial bacteria, much like other nutrients and vitamins, should be consumed regularly to promote general health. Dr. Gregor Reid, director of the Canadian R&D Centre for Probiotics, explained that we need probiotics in our diet because they don’t always stick around in the body.
“Ninety per cent of our stool is bacteria, so how do we naturally replenish them if our food is sterile?” he said.
We can renew good bacteria by consuming supplements, like probiotic yogurt or other fermented milk products packed with live bacterial cultures. Such foods establish a healthy balance between good and bad bacteria in our bodies.
Reid’s colleague Dr. Shari Hekmat, Professor of Food and Nutrition at the University of Western Ontario, explains that probiotics impact many aspects of health
“Depending upon the strain, probiotic bacteria have been shown to provide several therapeutic benefits such as modification of the immune system, reduction in cholesterol, alleviation from lactose intolerance, maintained remission of Crohn’s disease, faster relief from diarrhea, and prevention of urogenital infections,” he said.
For the average university student, consuming regular doses of probiotics is especially important. The stress that goes along with midterms and finals can suppress the immune system and destroy good bacteria, making room for bad bacteria to invade and cause sickness. As a result, come April many of us will be battling diarrhea, bloating, and gas – a deadly library combo. In the long term, these seemingly minor inconveniences can escalate into severe gastrointestinal disorders.
Poor nutrition can also throw the bacterial balance out of whack. Bad bacteria thrive on processed foods high in animal proteins and sugar – staples of the dorm-room diet. By eating fiber-rich foods combined with a regular intake of probiotics, we can encourage good bacteria to destroy their harmful counterparts.
Our growing understanding of probiotic benefits also has more far-reaching implications. The research of both Reid and Hekmat forms the basis of a unique internship project called Western Heads East. The project sends Western students to rural Tanzania where they have established a community kitchen. There, local mothers (“yogurt mamas”) are trained to produce probiotic yogurt and distribute it to their families and to HIV/AIDS sufferers in the community. Up to 90 per cent of HIV/AIDS patients in Sub-saharan Africa suffer from diarrhea, and in an upcoming article for the Journal of Clinical Gastrology, Reid writes that probiotics could save these patients’ lives.
“The fact that a food easily produced in developing countries…can alleviate diarrhea, represents a significant potential means of reducing some deaths amongst HIV/AIDS patients,” Reid comments.
Furthermore, a probiotic diet may reduce HIV transmission by maintaining the high level of acidity needed in a woman’s vagina to prevent contraction of the disease. This year, Western Heads East is expanding to Kenya and aims to eventually increase the quality of life in developing countries worldwide.
Unfortunately for the average consumer, Hekmat explained that many products marketed as probiotics are not in fact probiotic.
“A product can only be considered probiotic if it contains at least one million active probiotic bacteria per gram of the product. If the probiotic bacteria are not present in sufficient number over the storage period, then the product cannot be claimed as probiotic,” he said.
A true probiotic must also confer a health benefit proven in human trials. Yet, to date, there is no legal definition for the term “probiotic,” as Health Canada and the USFDA struggle with how best to legislate these products. Nonetheless, Reid mentions some marketed products with proven efficacy: “Florastor for diarrhea, Activia for regularity, DanActive for immune health, and VSL#3 for IBD.”