Probiotics: A Universe of Protection in the Head of a Pin
by Nancy T. Angelini LMT, Clinical Herbalist
Human commensal flora or the now dubbed “microbiome” has become one of the most talked about influences on total human health in the past year, trumping the human genome project.
According to molecular biology writer Tina Hesman Saey; “The various creatures that live in us and on us have a powerful, if often invisible influence on how the body works. In years to come, understanding those influences may provide answers to some of the most enduring mysteries in physiology and medicine, from obesity to autism and autoimmune diseases.”
You may be wondering what exactly a microbiome/human commensal flora is? According to Wikipedia, a microbiome is “the ecological community of commensal, symbiotic, and pathogenic microorganisms that literally share our body space.” Joshua Lederberg argued the importance of these microorganisms that inhabit the human body in both maintaining health and contributing to disease. Some consider the microbiome to be a “newly discovered organ,” since its existence was not generally recognized until the late 1990s. Although modern DNA sequencing techniques have enabled researchers to find and culture many of these microbes, there are others that are so integral to the specific host body that they cannot be transported to be grown in a lab.
If you’ve ever taken probiotics or consumed yogurt that touted “live cultures” on the label, then you have informally met some of the main bacteria of the human microbiome that can be grown in a lab and reproduced for culturing food or for taking as a supplement. These “little peeps in a pill,” are but a drop of water in the ocean of what is all of the microbiology that is an essential part of our bodies and the ability to keep us healthy.
Our attempt to comprehend the vast number, the veritable cities of living colonies of beneficial bacteria that our bodies house, is reminiscent of Horton’s struggle in Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who, as he tries valiantly to convince the townspeople of the existence of microscopic entities. Indeed, the microbiome is such a scientific blockbuster that Science News devoted an entire issue to the human microbial universe in many of its particulars entitled I, Ecosystem, which I encourage readers here to take the time to read for themselves.
Surrounded and Outnumbered
Admittedly, it is difficult to wrap one’s mind around the idea that something so small as to be invisible to the naked eye is such an important part of our protection against disease and our search for longevity. An array of commensal flora live not only in our intestines but also in our lungs, eyes, ears, noses, throats, on our skin and in the places in between. There are collectively more of these microbes in our bodies than there are of our own cells; approximately 10 microbes for each human cell. Microbes sport 400 more genes for each human gene, a fact which makes them more genetically intelligent than our corporal gene pool.
Some of the bacteria are resident; some of them are transient, and some of them parasitic. With good health the colonies of bacteria that are pathogens will be very small and kept in check by our beneficial bacteria. Experts believe that even the small amounts of pathogenic bacteria in healthy people play an important role in keeping the beneficial bacteria “on their toes,” so to speak.
How Do Bacteria Work for Us?
Lactobacillus acidophilus is one of the most important and the most prevalent bacteria in the human body, and is a great ally to us, especially regarding our primary immune defense. Lactobacillus is an active bacteria. Although friendly to humans, it will kill an invasion of foreigner microbiology as aggressively as any other part of our immune systems. Seventy percent of our immune system is localized in the mucosal membranes of the gastrointestinal tract.
Our beneficial bacteria have intelligence and can act immediately, where our acquired or innate immunity takes time to react to new foreign germs. A study from 2006 Journal of Microbiology described bacteria’s ability to mutate in the presence of foreign invaders. The microbe reads the outside membrane of the invader and within less than a minute produces new killing substances to destroy the invader. Ancient herbalists from India, China, and Europe understood that, although they could see nothing other than mucous membranes, something profound and extremely important to health and immunity lived in these areas. Thus they spent much time and energy balancing the mucous membranes of the oral cavity, throat, eyes, nose, lungs, skin and gut. Practices such as oil pulling for the oral cavity, netti pot for the nose, sinuses and throat, ear candling, aromatherapy steam for the lungs, skin brushing and oiling and baths for the surface membranes and a multitude of practices for rebalancing the gut have been the cornerstones of traditional herbal practices for millennia.
It turns out that trillions of cells of beneficial bacteria find their comfy home in these great tracts of tissue and it is here that our Primary Immune defense rests. The first line of defense is in these battlefields with these, our most true soldiers. Because this bacterial shield is invisible, we must remember to not take it for granted, or worse, utterly forget that it exists.
Your Brand of Bacteria
Not only must we remain aware of our invisible microbiome, we must take an even greater leap and understand that each of us has a personal relationship to our beneficial bacteria. You may not be rounding your bacteria up in rodeo fashion to stamp your brand on each and every creature, but in one way that is exactly what happens with all of the microbes that live in and on your body. The following excerpt from published European research succinctly describes each person’s intimate relationship with her/his own microbiome; “Each human being has his/her own unique microbial collection, especially of strains of Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus, and it should be possible to identify an individual on the basis of his/her personal intestinal microflora.” It is a phenomena that each and every single person, including identical twins have differing microbiomes and even if we take the same Lactobacillus acidophilus as a pill, once inside our body or on our skin, the beneficial bacteria will mutate and adapt to the environment and collective microbiology that is of our own making. Ultimately, each one of us exerts our choices, lifestyle, thoughts and habits on our collective bacteria, and they in turn offer up rapid-fire protection from every conceivable onslaught imaginable. Unless, of course, our choices, lifestyle, thoughts and habits are not ones that support a healthy, thriving microbiome. Yes, it is our responsibility to nourish and cultivate our body ecology.
Partnering With Your Bacteria
We are inextricably bound to our bacteria as they, in turn, are beholden to us. We must be the responsible landlords and offer them sufficient room and board in exchange for their protection. Sending in support troops is an excellent strategy to repopulate colonies or act as transient support during seasonal duress.
Supplemental probiotics are offering numbers of beneficial bacteria in the billions now. Twenty five, fifty, up to two hundred billion live cells is not uncommon today as a prescriptive dose for effective outcomes. Number of cells, however, is not the only consideration when choosing a probiotic. One must take into account the method of manufacturing, because after all, bacteria are living beings and although they are ostensibly put into a “freeze dried” sleep to be transported in a capsule, they still need to be handled in a particular manner in order to “wake up”, be viable and go straight to work inside of your digestive system.
In order to keep the environment called your body friendly enough for your newly transported “friends” to survive, pure, fresh water is important, as well as a plant based diet that beneficial bacteria prefer and also the absence of stress hormones. There are special types of foodstuffs called prebiotics that are particularly favored repasts for your commensal flora. Inulin, for example, which can be found in Jerusalem artichokes, beets and chicory, is one of the most researched prebiotics for safety, efficacy and additional anti-inflammatory effects. Culinary mushrooms are rife with special types of carbohydrates that are a particular favorite of our microbes.
Adding these foods and supplemental probiotics may have profound effects on the health and wellbeing of your body ecology, which may inevitably translate to improved primary immune function. Probiotics may fit onto the head of a pin; nevertheless they may offer each one of us a universe of protection not found in any other source.
Nancy T. Angelini LMT, Clinical Herbalist
A clinician of 27 years, 14 years educator and speaker in the Natural Products Industry. Currently, National Science Educator for Source Naturals, Owner and Clinician of Angel Clinic in Wenham, Massachusetts and freelance writer for natural products industry publications. Compiles, writes and presents lectures on many health topics with a focus on alternative health and wellness using food, herbs and supplements to support wellness and longevity.
References available upon request.