As we approach the 21st Century, we can marvel at the technological advances that have rapidly changed the way we live. In many ways life appears easier than it was for our ancestors who toiled daily for their food and often feared for their safety. However, it is this same technology that has vastly altered the environment of the earth and upset the ecological balance upon which our lives depend.

In reality, our ancestors enjoyed a state of health that many only dream of today. In the balanced environment of the past, hundreds of thousands of beneficial microorganisms lived in the soil and in our waters, metabolizing essential elements into vital micronutrients that provided food for plant life to thrive. Animals and humans ingested these friendly microbes with the plants they ate, and in a natural process, these microorganisms would then colonize their intestinal tracts and live symbiotically with their hosts.

These friendly bacteria are called probiotics, meaning “for life” (in contrast to anti-biotics which means “against life”). Probiotics, in essence, balance our internal environment and are essential to health in many ways. When present in our bodies, probiotics help to enhance the function of the entire gastrointestinal tract, and protect us against harmful foreign invaders such as pathogenic (disease causing) bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. They also produce essential vitamins and hormones and regulate their levels, maintain the chemical balance (pH) of the entire digestive system, promote assimilation of nutrients and elimination of toxins, and are critical to a healthy immune system.

A healthy digestive system is home to approximately 400 different species of beneficial bacteria that make up approximately two pounds of an adult’s body weight. The most notable of these probiotics are lactobacillus and bifidophilus which help to prevent unhealthy overgrowth of candida (yeast), and other harmful micro-organisms such as salmonella, shigella, and E. Coli. In today’s world, probiotics live a precarious existence, since they are easily destroyed by antibiotics and other drugs such as steroids and synthetic hormones, caffeine, and alcohol. Even chlorinated or fluoridated water can lead to the demise of these delicate creatures.

When these vital microorganisms are present in the mother, they are ingested through the baby’s mouth as it descends the birth canal, and after birth are nourished by the mother’s breast milk. In a clean ecologically balanced world, this was our inheritance. However, in the last century, our environment has reached a point of such imbalance that we no longer receive these microbes through the natural cycle of life.

The depletion of the ozone layer, increased levels of radiation, rapidly declining oxygen levels (which are one-third less than they were a century ago), and chemical pollution have dramatically reduced the population of beneficial microbes naturally found in the environment, allowing more powerful strains of harmful bacteria and other micro-organisms to take over. Hospitals are now reporting strains of bacteria that are resistant to all known drugs. Recently, fish kills have been reported on the east coast and elsewhere, caused by physteria, a deadly micro-organism that has been allowed to proliferate in rivers and coastal waters due to industrial toxin run-off that has destroyed physteria’s natural microbial predators. Physicians and researchers are very concerned about the effect this situation could have on humans.

Just as the earth is being challenged ecologically, so are our bodies. Our internal environment is merely a reflection of our external environment, for as a species our health is ultimately dependent on the health of our home planet. Symptoms of probiotic deficiency are numerous, and are related to almost every known illness. Most commonly, insufficient levels of probiotics can lead to candida overgrowth which results in perforation of the intestinal wall known as “leaky gut”. This allows undigested food particles and harmful microbes to enter the bloodstream creating allergies as the body attempts to get rid of these foreign proteins. In fact, Dr. William Crook, author of The Yeast Connection feels that this is the primary cause of ADD and hyperactivity in children. Many of these children have a history of being given antibiotics for ear infections. Related to this are chronic colds and sinus infections where repeated doses of antibiotics have battered the person’s supply of good bacteria, severely depleting the immune system. Bladder infections, yeast infections, rashes, gas, bloating, nausea, constipation and diarrhea are all signs of an imbalance in intestinal flora. The extensive and varied roles probiotics play in health have caused leading researchers in Europe to claim that as much as 80% of all degenerative diseases result from probiotic deficiency.

So, in light of the current state of our environment, what can we do to maintain our health and build a strong immune system? A diet rich in vegetables, fruits and grains and low in refined processed foods will help. The primary dietary source for probiotics such as lactobacillus is cultured dairy products such as yogurt, kefir, and buttermilk. However dairy proteins are difficult for the human digestive system to break down resulting in the production of abundant mucus (the body’s way of getting rid of undigested proteins). This is true even for those who are not lactose intolerant. Therefore it is recommended that a probiotic supplement be taken daily to keep the intestinal flora balanced.

Most health professionals recommend a blend of varying species of probiotics that include lactobacillus and bifidophilus in amounts of from two to seven billion microorganisms

Though we do indeed live in a toxic world, how wonderful to know that we have been given natural solutions to our health challenges. Perhaps soon we can re-create the pristine environment in which we were meant to live and once again exist in harmony with nature.