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February 21, 2017

The importance of probiotic bacteria 

Ask most New Zealanders what they think of when they hear the word “bacteria”, and they’ll probably tell you something harmful.  But not all bacteria are bad guys – and some are not just friendly, but actually essential for our overall wellbeing.  These strains of bacteria are often referred to as “beneficial” or “probiotic” bacteria.

Billions and billions of probiotic bacteria from over 400 species thrive naturally in a normal digestive system.  Not only do they play a role in keeping your digestive tract healthy, but they also support your entire immune system.  

How your digestive health affects your immunity

Many people don’t realise the extent to which a healthy digestive system influences their overall health and wellbeing.  However, given that most of the micro-organisms that enter your body do so through your digestive system, the association makes sense.

Your intestinal lining provides one of the single greatest surface areas through which illness-causing viruses and bacteria can enter your body. So if the lining isn’t acting as the barrier it should be, it may well be letting harmful organisms through.

The link between probiotic bacteria balance and a healthy immune system

Beyond this general interaction of your digestive and immune systems,  the probiotic bacteria in your gut can support your immunity in several ways.  Five of these include:

  1. Assisting with the process of digestion: a healthy immune system uses up many nutrients in its work of recognising and fighting off invading organisms.  These nutrients come from your food, but if your digestive tract isn’t working optimally, you may well end up missing out on vital nutrients that your immune system needs.
  2. Synthesising certain critical nutrients:  some probiotic strains actually produce essential B vitamins for your body.  These B vitamins are involved in creating cellular energy, metabolising other nutrients, and of course, in immunity. 
  3. Changing your intestinal environment: Lactobacillus bacteria are a specific family of probiotic bacteria that produce lactic acid, making the environment in which they live more acidic.  Disease-causing bacteria find it harder to reproduce and grow in acidic conditions, so lowering the pH in your gut keeps them from thriving.
  4. Competing for resources:  probiotic bacteria often need the same nutrients and colonisation sites to flourish as harmful bacteria would.  So the higher your natural probiotic levels, the fewer resources remain available for the less friendly bacteria.
  5. Boosting your immune response directly: research in this area is still in its early stages. However animals that were given particular probiotic bacteria strains showed increased immunoglobulin A (IgA) levels1.  Other studies show increased white blood cell levels after taking probiotics2

It’s important to realise that a vast number of specific probiotic strains exist, and each can affect our bodies differently.

If you’re looking for a scientifically researched probiotic supplement to support your immunity, speak to your local pharmacist or health food store expert.  They’ll be able to explain which products contain which strains, and what you can realistically expect from taking each one.

1Isolauri, E, Sütas,Y, Kankaanpää, P, Arvilommi,H, and Salminen, S. Probiotics: effects on immunity.  Am J Clin Nutr February 2001 vol. 73 no. 2 444s-450s