Two weeks ago, just as I thought I was recovering from a cold (which I got from my son btw), I woke up with an incredible pain in one of my ears one night. Next morning, when my doctor looked into it, her reaction made it clear why I had so much pain: “Oh no, it is so bad! It is a really bad infection!” And the result? Antibiotics!…And she also recommended taking probiotics. Why?
That was because I have trillions of beneficial bacteria living in my body and while antibiotics kill the harmful bacteria, they also destroy these good ones. And I am not the only one who harbors bacteria J
Yes, you read it right. Each one of us hosts lots of bacteria and these microscopic organisms help us live. Let me express how important they are: We wouldn’t survive without them!
Beneficial bacteria on our skin release substances that stop harmful bacteria or fungi from making a living on our skin. Various bacteria in our guts help us with digestion, influence how we store fat, affect the way we respond to the hormones of hungriness or fullness, and train our immune system for their fight against infections. If the composition of our gut bacteria is altered, we may face obesity, diabetes, immunity-related problems etc.
Where do we get these bacteria from? Well, it all starts with birth. We receive our first bacteria during birth mainly from our mothers, but also from the place we are born in (e.g. hospital or home). After that, we continue to receive bacteria from our mothers via breast milk and skin-to-skin contact, from the food we consume and from our environment via continuous physical contact. Each one of us has their very own specific range of bacteria, which is naturally very similar to their family members’ range of bacteria. The foundations of this unique set of bacterial ‘friends’ are laid within the first 2-3 years of life. Later, we can nourish these friends by choosing food that they like and also by staying away from what harms them.
I was getting rid of the nasty bacteria that caused infection in my ear by taking antibiotics, but unfortunately, I was also killing many of my beneficial friends. This is the setting when probiotics come on stage. (Notice the wording?: Pro- vs Anti- biotic!)
Probiotics are defined as “live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host”*. Such microorganisms occur naturally in products like some yogurt types and kefir, but they are also available as commercially available capsules and powders. Different types of bacteria, already validated to have health benefits clinically, are mixed in these commercial probiotics. There is a wider range of bacteria in commercial probiotics than in yogurt or kefir. So, while consuming such food products on a daily basis is great for our guts, taking commercial probiotics is beneficial when antibiotics are in action in our body. When you take probiotics, you replace some of the bacteria that are lost due to antibiotics, and therefore, support your digestion as well as immune system.
Antibiotics are one of the greatest discoveries of humankind, however, the general consensus is not to take them unless really necessary. And when it is so, like with my ear infection, we shall do our best to support our body and the precious friends within.
Note: Probiotics are NOT recommended for people who have immune system-related disorders or take medication to suppress their immune system, as they may be harmful to these individuals.
For more information:
Have a look at this fantastic video for a visual recap on the microorganisms living in and on our body.
When you have time, watch the TED talk “Meet your microbes” by Jonathan Eisen.
Scientists initiated the Human Microbiome Project in order to map all microorganisms living in and on the human body using DNA technologies, and also to analyse their function in health and disease.
Cogen A.L., (2008). Skin microbiota: a source of disease or defence?. Br J Dermatol., 158(3), pp.442-455. Pubmed: 18275522
Lin C.S. et al., (2014). Impact of gut microbiota, prebiotics, and probiotics on human health and disease. Biomed J., 37(5), pp.259-268. Pubmed: 25179725 (Open Access)
*Sanders M.E., (2008). Probiotics: definition, sources, selection, and uses. Clin Infect Dis. 46 (Suppl 2), pp.S58-61. Pubmed: 18181724 (Open Access)