Microbe management

Get to know the bacteria that can keep you healthy

Microbe Management
Get to know the bacteria that can keep you healthy

Loved, feared and hunted with a vengeance. If anything ever needed an extreme image makeover, it’s bacteria. We’ve always been told bacteria are Satan’s microbes, designed to make you sick. As a result, we’ve been forking over millions of dollars to buy antibacterial cleansers, wipes, soaps, bleaches and such, all in the effort to wipe these live, microscopic, single-cell beasts off the face of our dirty earth.

But now we’re learning just how advantageous some of those bacteria can be. You’ve no doubt seen probiotics sold in supplement form and, lately, added to drinks and food sold in your average grocery store. They’re not a cure-all by any means, but they’re another approach to health that’s getting more attention.

There are two distinct camps in the microbial world of bacteria. The nasty ones are E. coli—the strain of bacteria that often spawns traveler’s diarrhea—and salmonella, which causes food poisoning and extra-long stays in the loo. But there is the nice camp, too, which includes good-deed-doing bacteria that thrive in your body, especially in the gastrointestinal tract (in fact, there are even beneficial E. coli in the gut). The good strains keep you healthy by aiding digestion, bolstering your immune system and protecting you against illness.

Trouble is, sometimes that good bacteria count in your body gets diminished—in some cases, by a cycle of antibiotics that your doctor prescribed when other bad bacteria began to proliferate (unfortunately, antibiotics can’t distinguish good from evil), or perhaps during a bout of diarrhea that depleted you of valuable friendly microbes. For women, when bad bacteria prevail, it’s common for vaginal infections to occur; so it’s crucial for general health that the good bacteria maintain majority status.

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When it comes to probiotics, the idea is to introduce more living, good bacteria into the body via supplements or food. Research into probiotic therapy has revealed it can help treat disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, prevent the development of allergies and treat and prevent urinary infections. A recent Swedish study found that a control group taking probiotic supplements took fewer sick days from work than those who didn’t.

Gregor Reid, director of the Canadian Research and Development Centre for Probiotics in London, Ont., has been studying probiotics for 25 years, long before it became a buzzword in health.

“This isn’t hype or snake oil,” he says. “There is more widespread science backing up the benefits of probiotics. People are more accepting of them now because of a general dissatisfaction with drugs. They’re seeking more natural treatments and making a shift to illness prevention.”

The big companies bringing probiotics to consumers have been both a blessing and a curse. Health Canada does not have guidelines for using the word “probiotics,” though Reid and his scientist colleagues have been pushing for them. “Some manufacturers are just throwing them into products, from orange juice to cereal,” he says. But to be effective, most products need to contain more than one billion live bacteria. The emphasis here is on “live,” since dead ones aren’t any use.

Some products just don’t contain enough bacteria to be truly useful; others may have had enough at one time, but even within a couple of weeks on the shelf, millions die. Research has shown that certain yogurts that have additional strains of bacteria may live long enough at adequate levels to be beneficial. Try supplementing your diet with a daily serving of yogurt with active cultures.

In the meantime, join other probiotic-loving nations of the world, such as Japan, Sweden, Finland and France, in their love and support of good bacteria. Your body will thank you.

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