Ten years ago, if you asked me what probiotics were, I would look at you with a blank stare, wondering if you meant “antibiotics.” Despite existing from the beginning of time and meaning “for life”, these magnificent microorganisms that live in our digestive tract have only recently been highlighted and heralded for their healthy prowess. Probiotics are extremely important for a healthy digestive tract, assimilation and absorption of specific nutrients, keeping infections at bay and maintaining a healthy immune system, which is why my son has been on them daily since the day he was born. I have been taking probiotics religiously for about five years now and have noticed an incredible decrease in how often I get sick.
So what exactly are probiotics? The human gastrointestinal tract is home to more than 400 types of probiotics (such as “friendly” bowel bacteria, gut microorganisms, or intestinal flora). In fact, more probiotics live in a person’s mouth than there have ever been human beings on this Earth. These friendly microorganisms protect the gastrointestinal tract (from mouth to anus) and keep us healthy by protecting us from unfriendly microorganisms such as bacteria, yeasts, and fungi that cause disease.
Where do probiotics come from? Scientists have identified about 4,000 species of bacteria, and estimate from 400,000 to 4 million actually exist. Good and bad bacteria live virtually everywhere – no matter what we do or where we go, we come into contact with them. It seems as if children find all of the places to come into contact with every type of bacteria, which is why it’s important to make sure our little ones get a dose of the healthy type to outweigh the unhealthy type. Unfortunately, some of the unhealthy, disease-causing bacteria we also come into contact with are responsible for about half of all human disease (which include some yeasts [like Candida], Salmonella, Listeria, Montezuma’s Revenge, Amoeba, and certain E-coli strains).
How do probiotics actually work to protect our bodies? When present in adequate amounts in the body, probiotics can:
- out-populate and inhibit the growth of unfriendly organisms
- replace the healthy bacteria killed by taking antibiotics (ALL antibiotics kill bad AND good bacteria) or cooking foods
- manufacture chemicals absorbed into the body that the immune system uses to control the harmful bacteria
It seems at times that children take antibiotics like candy to ward off all kinds of childhood illnesses. However, were you aware that any, especially routine antibiotic use can cause more harm in the long-run by eradicating healthy bacteria? Any action taken to kill harmful bacteria essentially kills helpful bacteria as well. Taking antibiotics, cooking foods, and using antiseptic mouthwash are the most common ways we inadvertently kill off healthy bacteria in our bodies. Replacing them with quality probiotic supplements can reverse this destruction of one of our natural immune defenses.
So why should children (and adults alike!) take probiotics? In addition to protecting us from unhealthy microorganisms and boosting our immune system to fight infections, probiotics help to:
- provide a main source of Vitamin K (important for blood health)
- break down lactose and produces the enzymes lactase, improving lactose intolerance
- contribute to the absorption of minerals and the manufacture of important B vitamins
- improve digestion of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats
- promote regular bowel movements
- provide B. infantis, the most important micro-organism in the large intestine of babies & toddlers (if taking specific probiotics geared for babies and toddlers)
- facilitate healthy weight gain in infants and toddlers
As if probiotics have not already won our hearts, here’s another reason to love these marvelous microorganisms. Most people do not know that a large percentage of the body’s neurotransmitters are located in the digestive tract, therefore maintaining a healthy “gut” also means maintaining healthy brain and neurological health. This is critical for babies’ and children’s developing brains and bodies. Probiotics significantly improve the gut health of those who take adequate amounts.
You must be wondering by now how to get your kids started on this natural wonder if they already do not take probiotic supplements. Actually, it’s quite easy – but you must heed a few cautions to get the best benefits.
- First, make sure you buy your probiotics from a store that keeps them refrigerated (and you must keep them refrigerated or frozen once home). As tough as these microorganisms are at tackling the bad guys in the body, they are gentle in the real world and need to be taken care of. If kept out of refrigeration for any prolonged amount of time, the organisms die off.
- Buy a high-quality supplement. Yes –this makes a huge difference, namely due to proper manufacturing. Brands I have used, trust, and suggest are:
- Udo’s Choice
- Jarrow Formulas
- New Chapter Organics
- Renew Life
Stores like Whole Foods or any natural food/pharmacy store has the best selection of probiotics
- Look for a supplement with a high amount of live active cultures and delivery system that ensures proper absorption.
- Probiotic supplements are available in tablets, chewables, capsules, and powder form (which is especially easy to add to smoothies, baby food, water, etc.)
- All probiotic supplements work most effectively if taken after meals, when stomach acid is lowest (stomach acid destroys up to 99.9% of probiotics if taken before a meal)
With cold and flu season nipping at our heels (if it hasn’t already knocked at your door and visited your home in an unwanted fashion), it’s important we give our children (and ourselves) the most tools necessary to stay as healthy as possible. Probiotics offer one of the best lines of support and defense to our bodies…..give them a try if you haven’t already!
Stay tuned next Monday for more immune-boosting ideas to help keep the human body as healthy as possible, especially during the unforgiving winter months.