Over 90% of the cells in our bodies are not our own, they are actually bacteria cells. This may seem frightening to many who believe that all bacteria are dangerous or cause harm, but actually these bacteria are critical to maintain optimal health.
Many of the bacteria are helpful or inert and actually prevent our bodies from being harmed by pathogenic bacteria. The microbes that live in our bodies also help extract nutrients from foods and produce anti-inflammatory compounds to help us stay healthy. The Human Microbiome Project has begun to catalogue common bacteria found in the human body in order to determine the effect they have on human health.
The most important function of bacteria in our bodies is how they interact with our immune system. The balance between health and illness is a very delicate interplay between the microbiome and our immune cells. If bacteria are allowed to take over completely we become septic and die.
Bacteria can also trigger immune cells to over react, leading to the development of certain autoimmune diseases. But, bacteria may have a positive effect on our immune system by teaching our immune cells how to react properly to environmental triggers.
A recent study in Pediatrics found that when pregnant women took probiotics, or healthy bacteria, during pregnancy it had a protective effect against their unborn child developing allergies later in life. Babies who were exposed to the healthy bacteria in probiotics in the womb or received probiotics supplements after they were born had a 12% lower risk of developing allergies to food or environmental triggers.
The researchers who conducted this study believe that exposing children to bacteria early on can help them develop a stronger immune system and learn to react correctly to certain environmental triggers, instead of overreacting to benign triggers, as in the case of allergies.
As our understanding of the role of microbiome in our bodies continues to grow, especially as it relates to the interaction of bacteria and our immune system, we may find that exposure to certain bacteria can actually cause us to have fewer allergies overall.
Since the microbiome plays such a complex role in our overall health, it is difficult to make an over-arching recommendation of how much and what type of probiotic to take for optimal health.
Probiotics have not found to be harmful during pregnancy, but it is always best to ask your doctor before taking any supplements while pregnant. There are many probiotic supplements made especially for children, but should not be given to children who are ill or have a compromised immune system.
Instead you may want to consider getting probiotics from fermented foods such as yoghurt, kimchee, tempeh, miso, Kefir, or sauerkraut. Foods high in fiber provide food for bacteria in the digestive system so try to include at least 25 grams of high fiber foods per day from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
As scientists learn more about the complex relationship between bacteria and our health new cures for common ailments may turn out to be as simple as altering the microbial ecosystem in our bodies.