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Recent news of the unprecedented and massive outbreak of E. coli in Europe has public health officials scrambling to find the source of contamination. This toxic, antibiotic-resistant version of E. coli bacterium is like no other American scientists have seen. Since its discovery, this super bug has killed at least 22 and sickened over 2,330 people in 12 European countries.

Escherichia coli, or E. coli is a natural inhabitant of the human gut, but it is no stranger to food contamination and has caused many outbreaks across the globe. Although some strains are harmless, when an infection is present E. coli causes digestive symptoms similar to typical food poisoning such as diarrhea, cramps, gas and bloating. However the new German, toxic E. coli strain or enterohaemorrhagic E.coli (EHEC), causes much more serious issues such as bloody diarrhea and even seizures, strokes and comas caused by the bacteria attacking the kidneys.

While investigators struggle to identify the initial source of E. coli contamination, everything from unclean cucumbers, tomatoes and sprouts have been blamed. Still the real cause of this extraordinary outbreak is a mystery and has left many people afraid to eat fresh produce. A healthy amount of caution is wise, but avoiding vegetables hardly seems like a good strategy.

The fact is all of us have an eco-system of bacteria, good, bad and neutral, teaming within our digestive systems. This delicate balance of trillions of bacteria has the power to either keep us healthy or make us sick. Maintaining proper balance of good bacteria helps crowd out potentially bad bacteria and also supports good digestion. With over 1,000 strains of beneficial bacteria can be found in the human gut, it makes sense to choose a probiotic supplement that reflects this natural diversity. A probiotic supplement with the right amount of cultures and strains can help promote digestive health, bowel regularity and strengthen the body’s natural immune defenses.

Although infection with this super-strain of E. coli bacteria has been very limited in the US, the CDC recommends proper hand washing and food preparation techniques to keep food-borne infections at a minimum. Common sense would also suggest that maintaining your own personal “gut ecology” might also be a good idea. Research shows that probiotic supplements might be a smart way to tip the balance of bacteria in the digestive system in favor of good bacteria.

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Probiotics are well known for their beneficial effects on the gut. But these beneficial bacteria have far-reaching effects that you wouldn’t think had anything to do with the digestive tract. One of the main reasons for this is due to the fact that over 70% of the immune system resides in the gut, in the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT). These beneficial gut bacteria “communicate,” in a sense, with the immune system. When there is a healthy balance of good bacteria, the immune system responds properly. When there is an imbalance, the immune system might miss the message altogether. Then the sniffles begin.

A recent study found that daily consumption of the probiotic strains Lactobacillus plantarum and Lactobacillus paracasei helped protect study participants against the common cold, as well as reduced symptoms for those who contracted colds. Just more proof that the gut is connected to other systems of the body. Our gut health is truly at the heart of our total-body health. So next time you reach for a tissue, reach for some probiotics, too.

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