Probiotic supplements contain gut bacterial organisms believed to exert beneficial effects. As expected, much of the focus to date has been on the effects such supplements can have within the gut. For example, probiotics have been test in and been found to be useful for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). See here for more about this.
One of the effects of probiotics is to modulate the immune response. This may have relevance in the management of gut disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease (such as ulcerative colitis). There has also been some suggestion that these gut organisms can exert a beneficial effect on the immune system outside the gut too. I was interested to read about a recent study in which probiotics were used in children to assess their impact on their susceptibility to cold and flu symptoms .
The children in this study were aged 3-5, and were treated with one of three things:
1. A single probiotic organism (Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM)
2. A combination of probiotics (Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM plus Bifidobacterium animalis subsp lactis Bi-07)
The trial lasted 6 months.
Compared to the placebo, the single strain probiotic supplement reduced incidence of fever, coughing and runny nose by 53, 41 and 28 per cent respectively.
Compared to the placebo, the combination probiotic reduced incidence of fever, coughing and runny nose by 73, 62 and 59 per cent respectively.
The duration of symptoms was reduced by 32 per cent in those taking the single supplement. In those taking the combination supplement, duration was reduced by 48 per cent.
And finally (and importantly), antibiotics use was reduced in the single and combination supplements by 68 and 84 per cent respectively. I say importantly because antibiotics can erode beneficial bacterial numbers in the gut and predispose to the overgrowth of unhealthy organisms. There is always the risk, therefore, that while antibiotic therapy maybe useful, it can lead to short- or longer-term problems as a result of it’s impact on the gut ecosystem.
Should antibiotics be deemed to be required, then my advice is to accompany these with a probiotic supplement. See here for more details about this.
What this study shows is that probiotic supplementation has the potential to protect children from the cold and flu symptoms, and should be considered as a viable strategy for preventing infective illness.
1. Leyer GJ, et al, Probiotic effects on cold and influenza-like symptom incidence and duration in children Pediatrics, 2009;124(2):e172-9