A Time for Boosting Immune Health: Can Probiotics Help?

A Time for Boosting Immune Health: Can Probiotics Help?

Most people are experiencing uncharted territory during this unsettling time of industry insecurity and economic instability. Even further troubling is how these stressors catalyze havoc on our bodies. While social distancing guidelines can go a long way toward protecting us from contracting COVID-19 or any infectious disease, keeping our immune systems functioning at optimal levels is key to staying healthy.

When we think of nurturing immunity, gut health might not first come to mind. But in fact, 70% of our immune system resides in the gut, where the gastrointestinal tract houses the body’s first line of defense for boosting immunity by blocking invasive, toxic bacteria. The gut acts as a sentinel of sorts, warding off pathogens that can cause inflammation, hamper immune response, and make us more vulnerable to chronic conditions and disease.

Understanding the Gut Microbiome

Our bodies naturally contain trillions of microorganisms, called the microbiota. Although some microbes are pathogenic and potentially harmful, most are beneficial and play a vital role in supporting digestive and overall health. It is the proper balance of the two that prevents overgrowth of the bad. 

Several factors and environmental exposures can compromise healthy gut flora — poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, stress or taking antibiotics. When left unchecked, toxic bacteria can permeate the intestines and enter the bloodstream and lymphatic system; a condition called leaky gut. This disruption triggers inflammation that contributes to the myriad chronic conditions and diseases afflicting Western culture — from allergies to autoimmune disorders, obesity and even cancer. 

Because our levels of good bacteria naturally decline with age, those 60 and older need to take extra care in maintaining healthy levels of these beneficial bacteria, especially during a pandemic.

Do Probiotic Supplements Offer Benefits for Fighting the Novel Coronavirus? 

Placebo studies performed during the cold and flu season — the time when we are exposed to the viruses that cause influenza — reveal a lessening of the duration of illness as well as lessened severity and level of infectivity in adults and children when taking probiotics. Based on this data, we know probiotics can help boost the immune system so that our bodies can better deal with these types of infections.

Further research and study support the immunomodulatory properties present in live probiotics that act to strengthen the gut epithelial barrier and reestablish microbial equilibrium.

This is not to say that all probiotics will deliver benefit, but rather only a selective group that contains certain specific strains and quantities. Those considering supplementation should seek out a probiotic delivering at least 20 billion CFUs (colony forming units) of multi-strain bacteria. Ideally, 10 strains should include Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium cultures, which have been found to best colonize the intestinal tract, counteract pathogenic bacteria and communicate with the immune system.

Because intestinal microbes require fiber for nourishment, it is best to take a probiotic that also contains a prebiotic, or nondigestible starch, to improve efficacy. Prebiotics travel to the colon where probiotic bacteria then break them down to produce short-chain fatty acids critical for the normal nourishment of colon-lining cells. Basically, prebiotics stimulate the growth of probiotics so that they remain in the gut long enough to do good. The prebiotic Fructooligosaccharides (FOS), in particular, stimulates the growth of beneficial bifidobacteria. This synergistic combination of probiotics and prebiotics works to reverse the imbalances that contribute to inflammation and disease.

About the author: Dr. Lawrence Hoberman is a board-certified gastroenterologist and founder of Medical Care Innovations. During his 40-plus years practicing internal medicine and gastroenterology, Dr. Hoberman has worked with microbiologists to identify beneficial bacteria for treating gastrointestinal disorders naturally.