You may not think about it very much, but your gastrointestinal tract is more than a place for food to digest; it is actually a complex ecosystem. The gastrointestinal tract has the responsibility of producing enzymes to digest and absorb nutrients and rid the body of toxins. Without this function, we would be left vulnerable to a host of diseases, such as inflammatory disorders, allergies, and colon disease, to name just a few. In effect, our bodies would become toxic reservoirs. It may sound odd, but your gut needs certain bacteria to keep that from happening.

Meet your bacteria friends.
While it is true that bacteria can certainly harm us, some species of bacteria are essential for maintaining good health. Lactobacillus acidophilus, for instance, is widely recognized as being helpful in checking recurrent vaginal yeast infections. Others, such as Bifidobacterium, offer protection from carcinogens created during the cooking process of foods.

Some supplements, like fructooligosaccharides (FOS, naturally occurring sugars), encourage the growth of "good bugs." Often, bacteria-foods, such as FOS, are referred to as "pre-biotics"; the beneficial bacteria themselves fall into the "probiotics" category. FOS increases the presence of beneficial bacteria and short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) in the colon, both essential for preserving colon health. Friendly bacteria are derived from foods containing live cultures (such as yogurt) and from acidophilus supplements, because it's almost impossible to get enough good bacteria in your diet.

Not all brands of yogurt contain live cultures; those that claim to are sometimes robbed of their beneficial bacteria if exposed to light or heat before or after making it to the market. There has also been the question of whether good bacteria will survive the digestive process and colonize in the intestines, where they will do the most good. But, thanks to decades of research and development, increasing the number of helpful bacteria can be as simple as remembering to take your probiotic formula.

Antibiotics: a digestive enemy.
There is a particularly good reason to supplement your diet with probiotics. We are facing a serious threat. to public health today due to the overuse of antibiotics during the last 30 years. We have created "super germs" that are drug resistant and impossible to restrain. Antibiotics not only destroy the good bacteria in the intestines, but they foster the ability of harmful strains of bacteria to get a foothold. Keep in mind that even if you rarely medicate with antibiotics, you are still exposed to them second-hand via non-organic meat and dairy products.

Antibiotics upset the intestinal ecosystem. Since the digestive process is compromised, nutrient absorption is also suppressed and either constipation or irritable bowel syndrome may develop. According to the University of Nebraska Medical Center, nearly 30 percent of children given antibiotics suffer from diarrhea as a result. A new study at the Center involving 188 children showed significant improvement of stool volume and a reduced frequency of stomach aches when treated with Lactobaccillus. Another recent study in Japan demonstrated an enhanced resistance against gastrointestinal infections in young children who were given a probiotic formula containing Lactobaccillus.

Lactobacillus has also shown an ability to inhibit the development of collagen-induced arthritis in mice. Numerous studies indicate that L. acidophilus has an anti-inflammatory action by preventing the production of eosinophils, histamine-producing cells.

This strain of bacteria has also demonstrated the immunomodulating benefit of stimulating lymphocyte production and to effect an increase in interferon gamma levels. Animal studies have shown that L. acidophilus can also reduce cholesterol levels, particularly LDL cholesterol, the "bad" kind.

There are more than 100 strains of bacteria to be found in the intestines. In a healthy person, the levels of friendly bacteria outnumber the harmful kind. Prebiotics and probiotics provide the opportunity to ensure that desirable bacteria, the "good guys," get the last laugh.

Author's Bio: 

Karyn Siegel-Maier, owner of The Herbal Muse Press and founder of, is a freelance writer specializing in botanical therapies. She has written for many magazines, including Let's Live, Natural Living Today, Real Woman, The Herb Quarterly, Your Health, American Fitness, Mother Earth News, Delicious!, Better Nutrition, Natural Pharmacy and several web sites. She is also the author of The Naturally Clean Home (1st and 2nd editions, 1999 and 2008), 50 Simple Ways to Pamper Your Baby (2000) and Happy Baby, Happy You (2008). She has been the subject of numerous interviews with national magazines and newspapers and has been a guest on several radio shows, such as Gary Null's Natural Living and The Deborah Ray Show.