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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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In 2008 a gastroenterologist in Minnesota discovered that he was able to cure one of his patients of a destructive Clostridium difficile infection by transplanting healthy bacteria from her husband’s gut into hers. Clostridium difficile, more commonly known as C. diff, is a bacterial infection that can cause severe diarrhea and inflammation of the colon, but within hours after the beneficial bacteria was transplanted into her colon, the woman’s C. diff infection disappeared—along with her symptoms.

No, it’s not science fiction, just an emerging field of real science that continues to amaze doctors, scientists, and just about everyone in the health care community. And at the heart of it all is something that can’t even be seen with the naked eye—the trillions of microscopic bacteria that have been living in your gut since the day you were born.

The human digestive tract is where more than 70 percent of the body’s natural immune defenses are found. That means it plays a vital role in preserving overall health, and study after study has shown that the good bacteria (called probiotics) can help prevent everything from digestive problems such as irritable bowel and constipation to inflammation-related conditions such as asthma and allergies. Not only that, but the variations between one person’s gut environment and the next can make a big difference when it comes to whether or not they are more prone to certain diseases or conditions throughout life.

While this comes as no surprise to natural health experts—who have been touting the benefits of probiotics and a balanced gut for years—their hope is that it will increase awareness about the benefits of taking a daily probiotic supplement at every age in order to promote lifelong health.

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‡These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. The material on this page is for consumer informational and educational purposes only, under section 5 of DSHEA.

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