Good Gut Bacteria Does Battle Against Bad Cold and Flu Bugs

By now you’ve seen the commercials for probiotics that promise to correct your digestive disturbances, but you may not be aware that they offer another important benefit — fewer runny noses, fevers and coughs. The digestive system acts as “command central” for the immune system, explains Leo Galland, MD, director of the Foundation for Integrated Medicine in New York City and author of the e-book The Heartburn and Indigestion Solution. A recent study demonstrated that pumping up your intestinal balance of healthy bacteria is a safe and effective way to cut back on cold and flu risk.

Fewer Fevers, Fewer Coughs, Fewer Antibiotics

In a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial at multiple sites, doctors randomly assigned 326 healthy children ages three to five to receive a placebo or a probiotic supplement (Lactobacillus acidophilus alone or Lactobacillus in combination with Bifidobacterium animalis) twice a day for six months. Researchers witnessed positive outcomes in children given Lactobacillus only — and even more dramatic improvement in those administered the combination probiotic…

  • Of the 91 children absent from school at least one day, 51 were from the placebo group — while each of the groups that received probiotics had only 20 absentees.
  • Lactobacillus reduced the incidence of fever by 53%, coughs by 41% and runny noses by 28%, in comparison with placebo.
  • The combination of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium lowered fever incidence by 73%, coughs by 62% and runny noses by 59%, as compared with placebo.
  • Antibiotic use was reduced by 68% (single strain) or 84% (combination strain), relative to placebo.

These results appeared in the August 2009 edition of Pediatrics. Dr. Galland notes that while this research was done with children, it confirms previous research that showed probiotics to be highly beneficial to adults as well.

Take a Daily Probiotic… Year Round

To establish a proper bacterial balance in your digestive system and enhance your immunity, Dr. Galland recommends that you ask your physician whether you should be taking a daily probiotic supplement — not just during cold and flu season, since in reality your body is under assault by germs year round. Dietary sources, including yogurt or kefir and also fermented foods, such as unpasteurized sauerkraut (note: most commercial brands are pasteurized), are also helpful in supporting positive intestinal flora, but Dr. Galland told me they cannot do the job alone. Your body may require the more massive quantities of healthful bacteria provided by supplements to offset and overwhelm the influence of negative microbes.

Dr. Galland does not endorse any particular probiotic brand, but — given various study results — advises working with your doctor to choose one that contains both strains of protective bacteria, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. These often are prescribed with meals once a day or in two divided doses for a total of 20 billion CFUs (colony forming units) daily. If you experience stomach upset, stop using them and consult your doctor.

Having the right microbial balance in your body’s “ecosystem” will help to stimulate your immune system to keep you healthy and on the go this flu season and beyond, says Dr. Galland.