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Can probiotics help with the common cold?

Every year from fall through early spring, millions of Americans suffer from the dreaded “common cold” and thousands more are infected with the “flu”.  These illnesses cause many missed work and school days and many days of discomfort, including coughing, congestion and for some, even hospitalization.  There is no treatment for the common cold and even for the flu virus, the medications are minimally effective if begun very soon after symptoms start which is a difficult possibility for many of us.  Therefore, researchers and physicians alike are turning their eyes towards new and more promising methods that involve boosting the immune system so that even when exposed to the virus, it’s never able to cause the illness.

One of the strategies that is showing great promise is using a class of nutritional supplements called probiotics that can help replenish and build a healthy environment inside the GI tract.  How can improving the environment inside the GI tract help with improving your immune system?  It turns out that the GI tract and its function to absorb nutrients are key to immune system function and this has a big ability to fight our infections through important effects on individual immune system components.  Although the exact mechanism is not clearly known, probiotics enhance immune system function.  As Hippocrates once said hundreds of years ago, “Death begins in the colon.”  Well, it doesn’t have to with a good daily dose of prevention called probiotics.


How do probiotics affect the immune system?

One recent study looking at a particular strain of probiotics called Bacillus coagulans showed that this class of probiotics help improve the T-cell function of the immune system when presented with common cold viruses.  These cells are critical to the defense against many different viruses and other foreign invaders.  This study was important because it shows the link between a probiotic and an improvement in a major cellular line of defense in your body.  A similar study showed other improvements in immune system function.  Other studies on probiotics showed the promise of these supplements on overall immune system health, which is key during the cold and flu seasons, and especially when we are also traveling.  Therefore, think of probiotics as an important part of your “immune armor” which helps prevent attacks from foreign invaders and use them every day to stay healthy all year long.

SHORT ANSWER: Probiotics help boost your immune system with B. coagulans showing specific benefits for cold and flu viruses.


Are probiotics safe and should I take them?

Probiotics have been shown to be very safe for human consumption and data on Bacillus coagulans, a particular strain of probiotics, have shown no mutagenic or genotoxic effects and all the clinical trials to date have shown no serious adverse events.  Probiotics have been researched in children and neonates as well with life-threatening conditions and they have also been proven safe.  They have not been implicated in causing any serious disease.  To this day, it is unclear how these supplements exactly improve immune system, prevent serious diseases, and promote healthy bowel function.  It is thought that the balance of healthy bacteria in your GI tract has a “chain reaction” affecting numerous important processes such as nutrient absorption and inflammation.  This is thought to be the reason why the benefits for probiotics are so vast.  We are just now beginning to appreciate the complexity of this important symbiotic and healthy relationship with the organisms in our GI tract.  Several clinical trials have demonstrated both safety and effectiveness and I am very impressed with some recent research on bacillus coagulans, a particular strain of probiotics, that show specific immune system benefits and the ability of this strain to survive the harsh environment of the stomach so that it may make its way down to the lower areas of the GI tract.

Probiotics, I believe, should be an important part of your daily supplement regimen to maintain the health of a critical organ that has effects on many other processes in the body.  I have found great utility for them in my clinical practice especially when used in preventing GI illness that can often result while traveling to other countries and unintentionally consuming contaminated food and water.

SHORT ANSWER: Probiotics are safe and effective to help promote overall health and prevent common GI illnesses.


How can probiotics reduce GI problems?

Probiotics are fascinating because through them we take advantage of the mutually beneficial vital relationship we have with bacteria inside our GI tract. Probiotics are live microorganisms (in most cases, bacteria) that are similar to the beneficial microorganisms found naturally in the human gut. They are also called “friendly bacteria” or “good bacteria.” Probiotics are available to consumers mainly in the form of dietary supplements but they are also placed in foods.
Probiotics are used to prevent many different conditions but particularly those that affect the gastro-intestinal tract (“GI” tract). Although the mechanism is not clearly known, probiotics might help create a healthy environment in the GI tract where “foreign invaders” cannot take up residence. They have been shown to help prevent some very common and occasionally serious infections in the GI tract that cause diarrheal disease. For example, a type of serious infection in newborns in the lining of the intestine can be reduced by through specific probiotics. Probiotics have also been shown to help prevent the common diarrheal infection in children caused by a virus called “rotavirus” (often spread at day care centers, preschools, etc). Studies also support that probiotics decrease the chance of getting “traveler’s diarrhea” the travel-ruining disease often acquired when in other parts of the world with less than optimal water sanitation practices. There is evidence that probiotics might help with colitis (inflammation in the bowel) and irritable bowel syndrome.
Also, some people take probiotics to restore the good bacteria in the gut that have been killed or removed by diarrhea, radiation, chemotherapy, antibiotics, or other causes. The most common of these is probably antibiotic associated diarrhea (AAD). Antibiotics can kill the good bacteria in the intestines and evidence supports that probiotics can help by replenishing and reconstituting the bacteria in the GI tract.
I am very excited about probiotics, their current role and developing research in the treatment, prevention, and management of a variety of diseases as a type of internal “nutritional armor” starting in the GI tract. We must not also forget that microorganisms living in your intestines are in close association with cells that affect your entire immune system. Therefore, the role in probiotics in enhancing immunity, inflammation and hypersensitivity throughout the body starting within the GI tract is also exciting.


Do probiotics help Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a chronic gastrointestinal disorder involving abdominal pain and discomfort with alterations in bowel frequency, form, and/or passage.  The general prevalence in the population is somewhere around 12% with a higher prevalence in women.  Although IBS is not life threatening, the symptoms can have a profound impact on a person’s emotional health and quality of life.  The cause of IBS is not clear but there is evidence that infection, diet changes, and emotional/psychological stress can all play a role.  Patients with IBS often demonstrate an alteration in the normal bacteria composition of the GI tract.  It is not known whether this abnormal composition is the cause or the result of IBS.  However, bacterial overgrowth and other changes in this normal flora do impart important changes in GI function that include even effects on the immune system and important nutrient absorption.

What makes probiotics such an exciting treatment for this condition is the wealth of data regarding how they help restore the normal flora of the GI tract and improve GI function while also decreasing inflammation in the bowel tract.  A recent report showed that a particular patented form of a probiotic Bacillus coagulans was helpful in treating the symptoms of IBS and a study involving 44 patients using the probiotic for 8 weeks.  The treatment showed a significant improvement in symptoms such as abdominal pain and bloating.  This particular probiotic is interesting because unlike many other strains, it comes in the form of a “spore” which can sustain the low acidity of the stomach and survive all the way to the intestine.


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