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Boost Your Immune System with Good Bacteria

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ProbioticsAlong with new strains of the flu that arrive each and every year, come the days stuck home in bed and lost productivity at work, not to mention the misery of feeling ill. It is no surprise that many folks are on the lookout for immune-boosting supplements as the Fall and Winter seasons approach. There are countless supplements out there that claim they can help boost your immune system, but did you know that 80% of your immune system is actually found in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract? This means that your gut is actually a major focal point when it comes to maintaining optimal health and strong immunity.

Our GI tracts are colonized with bacteria beginning the day we are born, and as a result, our intestines are brimming with many different strains of bacteria, good and bad. The “bad” microbes promote disease, and the “good” microbes or flora work with our immune systems to keep out the bad microbes by crowding them out and keeping their numbers in check. One of the jobs of the good microbes is to stimulate the immune system; for instance, certain bacteria in the gut help with correcting deficiencies in our immunity and increasing the numbers of certain T cells. Just how the bacteria interact with the immune system isn’t fully known, but more and more compelling evidence supports the notion that intestinal bacteria bolster the immune system.

As a result, when we eliminate all the good microbes from our body with too many courses of antibiotics, we weaken our immune system, and this has been shown to contribute to increased incidence of allergies and asthma along with digestive problems. Stress, bad eating habits and chlorinated drinking water can also upset the balance in the GI tract. When this happens, and the bad bacteria start to outnumber the good and digestive problems like as excess gas, bloating, constipation, toxicity and poor absorption of nutrients can pop up, too.

The role of good bacteria doesn’t end there! Healthy populations of gut bacteria help us absorb certain undigested starches, fiber and sugars and convert these carbohydrates into sources of energy and nutrients. They manufacture vitamins; helping in the production of both vitamin K and B vitamins, and promoting mineral absorption. They also aid in metabolism and the breakdown of toxins, and the latest research is suggesting they may even be a key to understanding who will suffer from obesity.

So how can we be sure that our guts are filled with plenty of good bacteria? Even though they are always in a state of renewal, it’s up to us to make sure our gut flora stays in a healthy balance. Cultured foods, such as yogurt and some cheeses, are good sources of natural, healthy bacteria and have been balancing gut flora in humans for centuries. In fact, people used cultured or fermented foods throughout history to support their intestinal health, long before the invention of supplements. Cultured vegetables such as sauerkraut are also wonderful for keeping the good bacteria populated. In general, fermenting vegetables in salt water or brine made from natural sea salt is best as the brine ensures the vegetables won’t rot and encourages the growth of the beneficial Lactobacilli bacteria. Most store bought pickles and sauerkrauts are made with vinegar and/or pasteurized, so they are lacking beneficial bacteria. But many health food stores now offer unpasteurized cultured vegetables in their refrigerated section, and you can even make them at home with culture starters.

Fermentation with lactic acid bacteria offers other benefits too. The nutritive value of foods is improved in cultured foods because of improved bioavailability and better absorption of protein and minerals, like iron, zinc, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus and copper. Lactic acid bacteria can even make riboflavin, folic acid, niacin, thiamin and vitamin B12, on their own.

Probiotic supplements are another great way to get the good bacteria that your body needs. Select a probiotic supplement with a high number of colonizing units and look for strains such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. Specific bacteria and yeast strains, such as Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Sacchromyces boulardii have been shown in particular to prevent the overgrowth of candida and clostridia species and fall into the probiotic category, as well. Selecting a product which contains prebiotics, which are fibers that the good bacteria feed off of not only populates the gut with great bacteria but also gives them the fuel they need to thrive. Aim for a multi-strain formula with about a 10 billion CFU count of friendly bacteria.

Finally, do remember that when you introduce a probiotic supplement or cultured foods to your diet or protocol, start slowly and work up your dosage gradually, as adding too much at once can cause excess gas or stomach upset for some.

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