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It’s that time of the year again when we all seem to be coming down with something: coughs, colds, flu, tonsillitis, or worse… We all know how disruptive and uncomfortable it can be to daily life, so how can we make sure that we are able to defend ourselves against these nasty bugs and viruses?
Thankfully, there is a lot that we can do to help ourselves, such as stress reduction and ensuring we get enough vitamin C, D, zinc, and sleep. But did you know that one of the most effective supplements you can take to support your immunity is actually a probiotic? It makes perfect sense when we consider that our immune system is largely based in the gut, and that the good bugs in it are absolutely critical to protecting us against the bad guys.
The beneficial bacteria living within our gut, such as Lactobacillus, are able to stimulate the natural function of our immune system. They appear to act as a ‘low level challenge’ which helps to keep our immune system gently stimulated and ready for action so it can respond quickly and effectively to invaders. So when researchers gave young children a combination of 12.5 billion LAB4 probiotics (a combination of two strains of Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium bifidum, and B. lactis) with a little vitamin C every day, they found that the children got fewer coughs and colds. Even if they did get an infection, the symptoms were only half as bad, they did not take as much medication (e.g. antibiotics), and they even needed less time off school (see graph below).[i]
Therefore, taking probiotics, including the LAB4 combination and L. rhamnosus GG, should be a core part of your winter wellness protocol to help reduce your risk of coughs and colds and recover faster should you pick one up.
If we take antibiotics for an infection, we need to remember that along with destroying the infection, they also act on our good gut bacteria, causing an imbalance, and perhaps having a negative effect on immunity in the long run. Again, using probiotics can help to re-establish and accelerate growth of microflora lost through antibiotic use.[iv] Probiotics can also reduce side effects such as antibiotic-associated diarrhoea.[v] Therefore, taking probiotics when you are on antibiotics is an excellent and essential way to support your healthy gut bacteria and prevent you becoming resistant to the antibiotics, ensuring they will work if you need them in the future.
Do you suffer from an autoimmune condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or Sjögren’s? Do you find that your condition gets worse in the winter? A lot of people find that the lack of sunshine, cold and damp weather, along with the common change in diet (e.g. more comfort food and alcohol) associated with this time of the year can cause a flare up. Whilst there isn’t one factor that causes this, it would be wise to supplement with extra vitamin D, increase the antioxidants in your diet, and take probiotics for an easy and effective way to keep your immune system balanced.
The barrier between the outside world and our internal body systems is the gut lining, which regulates what passes through into our body. Often, this lining becomes damaged and chronically hyperpermeable, which allows larger molecules and allergens through, leading to inflammation. This is known as intestinal hyperpermeability or a ‘leaky gut’. Intestinal permeability can be a trigger for autoimmunity,[vi] where the immune system can mistakenly treat harmless body cells as threats or pathogens.
Gut bacterial imbalance, or ‘dysbiosis’, can also increase the likelihood of autoimmunity,[vii] partly by driving leaky gut and an ongoing cycle of gut-derived inflammation. Therefore, if we restore balance in the gut microflora, reduce inflammation and improve intestinal permeability, with probiotic supplementation, it could be possible to modulate autoimmune dysregulation. Specific strains of bacteria, such as Lactobacillus salivarius, have been shown to increase the level of anti-inflammatory molecules[viii] in the body and reduce localised inflammation in the gut.[ix] A preliminary study using LAB4 probiotics for 12 weeks showed a beneficial effect on modulating the immune system, by reducing inflammation.[x]
Probiotic supplementation can consequently be a helpful part of an autoimmune protocol through its ability to exert a balancing effect on the immune system. However, if the individual is taking immunosuppressant medications, there is a need for caution and we recommend seeking the advice of a registered Nutritional Therapist.
Using the right strains of bacteria in the right quantities to have the desired effect on the immune system is essential, but what strain do you choose, at what dose? Let us simplify things for you, based upon the recent research summarised above and our clinical experience:
If you have a particular immune condition and would like tailored advice to suit your needs, please contact our Clinical Nutrition team.
When worrying about the threat from harmful bugs, we need to remember that some bacteria are beneficial and vital to the function of our immune system. Using well-researched human strains at the right doses, probiotics can be useful for keeping the immune system balanced yet strong. Some bugs really are good bugs, and if we look after them, they will look after us too.
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Or head to our advice page where you can find Healthnotes.
[i] Garaiova I et al. Probiotics and vitamin C for the prevention of respiratory tract infections in children attending preschool: a randomised controlled pilot study. Eur J of Clin Nutr. 2015; 69 (3): 373-9.
[ii] Hojsak I et al. Lactobacillus GG in the prevention of gastrointestinal and respiratory tract infections in children who attend day care centres: A randomised, double-blind, placebo controlled trial. Clinical Nutrition. 2010; 29 (3): 312-6.
[iii] Kumpu M et al. The use of the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG and viral findings in the nasopharynx of children attending day care. J Med Virol. 2013; 85:1632-8.
[iv] Madden et al. Effect of probiotics on preventing disruption of the intestinal microflora following antibiotic therapy: a double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study. Int Immunopharmacol. 2005;5(6):1091-7.
[v] Plummer S et al. Clostridium difficile pilot study: effects of probiotic supplementation on the incidence of C. difficile diarrhoea. Int Microbiol. 2004; 7(1):59-62
[vi] Fasano. Leaky gut and autoimmune diseases. Clin Rev Allergy Immunol. 2012; 42 (1): 71-8.
[vii] Campbell AW. Autoimmunity and the Gut. Autoimmune Diseases. 2014; 2014: 152428.
[viii] Diaz-Ropero MP et al. Two lactobacillus strains, isolated form breast milk, differently modulate the immune response. J App Microbiol. 2007; 102(2): 337-43.
[ix] Borruel N et al. Increased mucosal tumour necrosis factor alpha production in Crohn’s disease can be downregulated ex vivo by probiotic bacteria. Gut. 2002; 51: 659-64.
[x] Hepburn NJ et al. Probiotic supplement consumption alters cytokine production from peripheral blood mononuclear cells: a preliminary study using healthy individuals. Benef Microbes. 2013; 4(4): 313-7