Everyone's talking about bugs! Harmless bugs, infectious bugs and superbugs. With a new strain of superbug resistant to even the toughest antibiotic available with a growing number of cases in the UK (around 30 at the last count), it is hard to imagine that bugs can be anything but harmful.
On the contrary... there are millions of micro-organisms (to call bugs their proper name) that inhabit our gut and serve a vital role in protecting us from infection and disease. They exist in fine balance with other microbes to ward off infection from more virulent (more powerful and harmful) strains.
It is when this balance is disrupted that we fall ill. Very often, ordinary, relatively innocuous things like stress, poor diet, medication, hormonal imbalance and poor sleep can give rise to an imbalance resulting in opportunistic infections, particularly thrush (candidiasis) and is even linked to conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and rheumatoid arthritis. Other common symptoms are also invariably classified under the term dysbiosis. Given that the remedy is relatively simple, it is a wonder that many do not consider this as an option.
These beneficial bacteria (marketed frequently as 'friendly' bacteria by certain food manufacturers) help keep harmful, more virulent strains ('bad' bacteria) and yeast from growing in the gut. It is worth bearing in mind that these resident bacteria of our gut also make vitamin K, an important nutrient that keeps our immune systems functioning properly.
Prebiotics and probiotics together for part of a strategy to restore balance in the gut of these friendly bacteria, therfore boosting immunity and health.
Prebiotics is the general term given to the raw materials that feed the growth of the friendly bacteria because they won't flourish to healthy numbers if the food supply is low. These food materials are invariably indigestible foods that come from carbohydrate fibres called oligosaccharides. Because we can't digest them, they stay in the gut and stimulate the growth of our friendly bacteria. Good sources of oligosaccharides include fruits, legumes (eg. pulses, beans, nuts) and wholegrains (eg. wheat, oats, barley, rice). Fructo-oligosaccharides may be taken as supplements or added to foods. Yoghurts made with bifidobacteria contain oligosaccharides.
Probiotics on the other hand are the actual bugs themselves that are added to foods to introduce them directly into the gut. Normally, they are added to yoghurt as it is a common fermented food that we consume and one type of probiotic (Lactobacillus acidophilus) is usually found in it anyway so it is a convenient way to fortify the food. The other most common probiotic is Bifidobacterim (various strains) which are also beneficial.
Prebiotic and Probiotic Supplements
Probiotics are widely available as supplements. However, not all probiotic supplements are the same as they can have different formulations to suit various types and conditions so it is best to get advice from a qualified nutritionist or a medical herbalist. See my previous post on 'A Guide to Commercial Supplements' for further advice.
Now this deserves a special mention as there is a lot of negative press about this important medicine. Of course, it has been over-used and the prescription protocol hopefully will change now that we have a better understanding of superbugs and ways of developing new strategies to eradicate them. It is true that antibiotics have been introduced into all manner of things from crops to meat, from fish and poultry to OTC throat sprays... to name but a few! However, antibiotics continue to serve a vital part in primary health intervention and in controlling the spread of infection. Many do not realise the important historical developments that led to their use today and probably take for granted their effectiveness given that there are more powerful drugs on the market which can do the same job but present with serious side-effects.
Modern food manufacturing, emerging food industries, modern lifestyles/societies, changes in prescription practices and overuse of antibiotics has all contributed to fairly harmless strains of bacteria mutating and developing a resistance to these once potent medicines. Given that there are so many ways in which we can combat infection naturally and that antibiotics should really be the LAST resort, not the first, it is unsurprising that superbugs did not emerge sooner than they did.
I recommend a wonderful book (written by a doctor interestingly!) entitled: 'Natural Alternatives to Antibiotics' by John Mckenna where he examines the various strains of infectious agents that have become resistant to antibiotics and explores the real effectiveness of herbal, homeopathic and nutritional medicines in the context of combating infection, boosting immunity and restoring health.
(Natural Alternatives to Antibiotics by Dr. John McKenna (2003) published by Newleaf