intestinal tractA new understanding of the essential role of gut microbes in the immune system may hold the key to dealing with some of the more significant health problems facing people in the world today, according to recent research.

Problems ranging from autoimmune disease to clinical depression and simple obesity may in fact be linked to immune dysfunction that begins with a “failure to communicate” in the human gut. When it comes to their immune system, most people might think of white blood cells, lymph glands or vaccines. They would be surprised to learn that is s not where most of the action is. Our intestines contain more immune cells than the entire rest of our body - approximately 70 percent.  In fact, the combined number of genes in the microbiota that inhabit our digestive system is 150 times larger than the person in which they reside. They do help us digest food, but they do a lot more than that.

The gastrointestinal tract functions as a barrier against antigens from microorganisms and food. The generation of immunophysiologic regulation in the gut depends on the establishment of indigenous microflora.  An emerging theory holds that it is a disruption in the “crosstalk” between the microbes in the human gut and other cells involved in the immune system and metabolic processes that causes many diseases.  This understanding has led to the introduction of novel therapeutic interventions based on the consumption of cultures of beneficial live microorganisms that act as probiotics.

Probiotics are bacteria that help keep the natural balance of organisms (microflora) in the intestines. The normal human digestive tract contains about 400 types of probiotic bacteria that reduce the growth of harmful bacteria and promote a healthy digestive system. The largest group of probiotic bacteria in the intestine is lactic acid bacteria, of which Lactobacillus acidophilus, found in yogurt with live cultures, is the best known. Yeast is also a probiotic substance. Probiotics are also available as dietary supplements.

Many probiotic effects are mediated through immune regulation, particularly through balance control of pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines (substances, such as interferon, interleukin, and growth factors, that are secreted by certain cells of the immune system and have an effect on other cells). Research data show that probiotics can be used as innovative tools to alleviate intestinal inflammation, normalize gut mucosal dysfunction, and diminish hyper-sensitivity reactions.

Only certain types of bacteria or yeast (called strains) have been shown to work in the digestive tract. It still needs to be proved which probiotics (alone or in combination) work to treat diseases.

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