Probiotics are healthy bacteria and yeast that reside on and in our bodies. They outnumber our own cell count 10:1! With so many bacteria living off of us, what do we gain? A healthy immune system.
What is the immune system?
There is a large network of cells, organs and body tissues that work to patrol the body and defend against “foreign invaders.” Some of our first lines of defense include the skin, sinuses and airways and our digestive tract. All parts of the body that are exposed to the external environment are the first point of entry for invaders to enter our system. The digestive tract, when you think about it, really is part of our external environment as food and drink we take in from outside of the body enter in via the digestive tract.
In addition to physical barriers, healthy normal probiotic flora take up space on our skin, in our digestive tracts, pretty much everywhere and while fighting for their own survival, they crowd out space for unhealthy bugs that attempt to take residence. When our probiotic flora is depressed due to antibiotic use, poor diet habits or chronic stress, we are more susceptible to infection and illness.
How to Improve and Preserve Immune Supporting Probiotics
- Diet – Improving diet and exercise habits can change the terrain of the healthy flora that we host. Diets high in sugar tend to stun and reduce the number of healthy probiotic flora and actually feed pathogenic bacteria, especially yeast. It has been speculated that the probiotic makeup of the gut will play a role in what foods we tend to crave. An unhealthy inflammatory gut tends to crave sugar and carbs as the flora residing in that environment needs this to survive. These bugs are smart and try to con us into perpetuating their survival by enhancing these cravings. A healthy balanced digestive tract tends to have less sugar cravings and is happy on a high fiber diet rich in prebiotics.
Diet also plays a role in digestive pH. Certain probiotic flora reside in the stomach, a fairly acidic pH, while others survive in the small and large intestine where the pH is more basic. Probiotics have not only adapted to live in the various terrains of the body, they thrive. They even play a role in maintaining the appropriate pH of the area they reside in. This is important not only for their survival but to reduce the risk of other bacteria, virus or yeast being able to take hold that prefer a more neutral pH to survive.
- Reduce Stress – Stress increases inflammation in the body. Cortisol, the bodies’ stress hormone, is the fight or flight get out of danger signal to the body. When this hormone is chronically elevated the immune system is continually on alert, wearing it out making it less effective. It has been found that with reduced numbers of healthy bacteria in the digestive tract, blood markers of inflammation, including CRP seem to increase. High inflammation markers have been linked with a depressed immune system. Additionally, probiotic supplementation has been shown to increase white blood cell counts, thereby improving immune defenses.
- Vaccination Potentiation – As we age, so does our immune system. It is known that the very young and old are more susceptible to infection and illness. This is one of the major reasons vaccinations are encouraged in these two populations to offer additional immune support against common illness. Countless research has found that elderly individuals do not harness as much protection after a vaccination as younger individuals do. Research has shown improved immune protection against the flu after the administration of flu vaccine in addition to probiotic supplementation in nursing home residents. Therefore, probiotic supplementation could be a consideration to improve an aging immune system’s response to vaccine.
Should I Be Taking Probiotics?
Supplements of any kind should have warrant. Depending on an individual’s health status, current diet regimen and medication prescriptions, probiotic supplementation will vary. Telling someone to take a probiotic is like telling someone to take an antibiotic. You would never be told to take whatever you want for as long as you want with no guidance and the same is for probiotics. That being said probiotics are generally safe for most individuals.
Digestive analysis can help to determine what specific probiotic flora you lack and provides a road map for which strains should be supplemented. It is always a good idea to cut back on sugar and stress and to eat foods that are naturally rich in these immune boosting probiotics. Consider speaking with a naturopathic physician to pinpoint the most appropriate way to boost your immune system, and how to best use these probiotic flora to your advantage.
Dr. Ashley Burkman ND is a licensed naturopathic physician at Connecticut Natural Health Specialists, LLC, in Manchester, Connecticut. Specializing in endocrinology, hormones and digestive health, Dr. Burkman is accepting new patients. To schedule an appointment, please call (860) 533-0179.