Probiotics: Bacteria to promote your health

“Biotic” means life and “pro” means promoting or for; therefore, these bacteria “promote life” or are “for life.”

by Dr. Robin Terranella — 

Probiotics are bacteria consumed for health benefits. “Biotic” means life and “pro” means promoting or for; therefore, these bacteria “promote life” or are “for life.” It may seem strange to consume bacteria in the hope of promoting health, but that is exactly what is done with probiotics.

Most people use probiotics for conditions in the digestive region, but the positive effects of these bacteria can bring healing and wellness to all parts of the body. The purpose of this article is to explain both the local and systemic effects of using probiotics and for which conditions, specifically, they can be used.

The theory

It is estimated that more than 100 trillion microorganisms (microflora) normally inhabit our digestive tract, and among these are 500 different species. These microflora help keep pathogens in check and aid in digestion, nutrient absorption and immune function. With all of these functions, it is not hard to imagine that they can affect more than just the digestive tract.

Notable research has been done on the effects of probiotics on disorders of the digestive tract, ranging from ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease to antibiotic-induced diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Not all strains of probiotics are good for all conditions, which is important to know if we want the best outcome for what we are treating.

Two examples of strains’ specific outcomes appeared in two articles in Digestive Health. The first article found that E. coli — a harmless form of the well-known harmful intestinal bacterium Escheria coli — had similar effects as medications for ulcerative colitis. Similarly, Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium infantis improved the symptoms and quality of life in patients with IBS.

In the cases sited above, the probiotic bacteria interact directly with the cells of the digestive tract and surrounding immune system to create a healthy environment in the tract. As we will see below, the direct healing effects of the probiotics on the digestive cells lead to far-reaching effects in other parts of the body.

When we eat, the process of digestion breaks the food down into small enough molecules so that they can be absorbed into the blood stream. Under normal circumstances, this absorption takes place through the walls of the digestive cells. On occasion, foods not fully digested can be absorbed through gaps between the digestive cells. When this occurs, the immune system is alerted.

The immune system on alert is better known as inflammation. This condition can be mild and transient or severe and chronic. In either case, the chemical messengers of inflammation can be observed locally and throughout the entire body. Within the digestive tract, one of the problems created from inflammation is an increase in the space between digestive cells, making it easier for larger undigested food particles to be absorbed. As a result, more inflammation ensues. Stopping this vicious cycle is where probiotics come in, both locally and throughout the entire body.

Probiotics help decrease inflammation and calm the immune system by healing the gaps between the digestive cells and interacting with the immune cells directly. When the immune system is on alert, it sends out chemical messengers to recruit the appropriate immune cells to the area. In the process, these chemical messengers are sent throughout the body. This creates an immune system that is up-regulated and more prone to allergies and inflammation in all parts of the body.

Furthermore, when the immune system reacts to undigested food, the immune cells create antibodies to the undigested food.  If these antibodies have a similar structure to your body’s own proteins, these proteins will be destroyed by the immune system.  You will experience this as an autoimmune disease.

Some examples of autoimmune disease include rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, systemic lupus, multiple sclerosis, ankylosing spondylitis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, polymyalgia rheumatica and scleroderma. With probiotics, the gaps between the digestive cells are closed more tightly, and the foods we consume are digested more completely.

This translates into a less active immune system. Most importantly, probiotics seem to “send messages” to the immune cells. Exactly how this takes place is not fully understood, but researchers do know that this communication is important in how the immune system responds to the food we eat.

It should be noted that while the process of autoimmune disease has been discussed with great complexity, the reasons for its onset are still a mystery. Leading theories include the above as part of the explanation. Other theories include toxic environmental exposure, genetic predispositions and/or some combination thereof.

For this author, it is important to place a higher value on therapies that are less likely to harm and which in some way treat the cause of disease. In this way, people with autoimmune disease should look at the digestive tract as the foundation of their treatment plan.


Dr. Robin Terranella is a naturopathic physician and licensed acupuncturist who has a special interest and training in diabetes and cardiovascular disease. He cares for patients of all ages who have a variety of diseases and conditions. 480-990-9355, 480-529-3732 or

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 28, Number  3, Jun/July 2009.

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