Healthy Bacteria: Understanding This Foundational Food
By Tom Bayne, DC , May 2014
It’s been called “Foundational Food” and is certainly regarded as a critical nutrient. Probiotics are not a luxury; in fact, they are a very essential nutrient that the human body requires for proper function. Recent advances in science have demonstrated how critical our beneficial bacteria are to our health and wellness and as it turns out, we count on them a lot more than previously thought. We are, in some ways, more bacteria than human! There are 10 trillion cells that make up the human body, whereas there are more than 100 trillion beneficial bacteria cells that call our body home.
There are 10 times more bacteria cells than human cells in and on an average person. It is very clear that there is strong co-evolution between the human host and our 100 trillion passengers as we have come to depend on them as much as they depend on us. Considering that our bodies and our genetics have not changed much in the last 200,000 years, we have to wonder where did our ancestors get their probiotics from? Surely they didn’t have special coated capsules with billions of cells and refrigerators full of probiotic tablet options. So, how did they get these essential nutrients into their system where all this co-evolution occurred?
Scientists have studied this very topic and now have a clear understanding of where our distant relatives and us, picked up these important passengers. The first place is from mother. Mom does great things for us from the very start. Most of the beneficial bacteria found in the digestive tract come from our mothers, both when we are in the womb itself and during natural child birth. During the birthing process, the mother’s bacteria passes onto the fetus and in fact is swallowed by the fetus and they end up colonizing the baby’s digestive tract. Trillions of mom’s good bacteria are transferred to her baby this way. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species (commonly found in probiotic products) are among the strains passed from mother to child.
Physical contact with mom and breast feeding expose us to more beneficial bacteria that eventually make a permanent home on us and in us. This is where most of the beneficial bacteria that perform important functions in our digestive systems come from. These bacteria are designed to pass from mother to child during very, very close contact (i.e. the birthing process and breast feeding) as these strains of bacteria are not suited for life outside of the body. They are not designed to leave the body, spend time outside the body and be reintroduced orally. This is why many probiotics formulated with lactobacillus and bifidobacterium species have to be refrigerated to attempt to keep them stable. In fact, numerous studies have demonstrated that a large proportion of probiotic supplements using these strains in the market contain mislabeled strain counts and tend to have a high attrition rate through processing, shelf storage and certainly through the gastric system. (Gibson, G.R. et al 2005; Elliot, E. et al 2004; J.M, et al 1999; Hamilton-Miller, et al 1999)
The second way is through the environment. Our ancestors were hunters and gathers and they ate off the land. Much of the food and liquid they consumed was brimming with mega doses of environmental bacteria. Most of those bacteria died as they passed through the harsh gastric system (gastric barrier), but some didn’t. These specialized strains developed an uncanny ability to survive in the outside environment and then pass through the acidic gastric system to end up thriving in the intestines – these became nature’s true probiotics. With thousands of years of exposure to these specialized strains of commensal organisms, humans have actually come to require the presence of these strains for proper, healthy function of many of our biological systems. With this ability to live and reproduce in two very different environments (outside the body and inside the body), these strains are said to have a “biphasic” lifecycle. The most well-known, well studied and widely used biphasic probiotics are from the bacillus species. In particular, bacillus subtilis, bacillus clausii and bacillus coagulans; our modern sterilized food systems have all but eliminated these critical species from our diets.
Bacillus – The Original Probiotic
A simple literature search seeking published studies on the prevalence of the bacillus species will reveal the fact that bacillus seems to be a universal probiotic. Bacillus species are quite abundant in the environment and subsequently found as commensal, transient organisms in the gastrointestinal systems of mammals, insects, invertebrates, birds, marine life and even reptiles. Although they have always been classified as “soil organisms,” studies are starting to reveal that they are actually digestive tract organisms that use the soil as a vector for transfer from host to host and they have been doing this for thousands and based on some strong evidence, for even millions of years.