We are living in extraordinary times. The pandemic has prompted essential changes in our hygiene routines like social distancing, mask wearing and hand washing, but could implementing all of these microbe-phobic practices trigger other health problems? The hyper-clean living efforts we’re implementing to protect ourselves from COVID-19 could be making our body’s natural immune system weaker and also set us up for long term health problems. Could probiotics help fight this current virus?
While we try to prevent the spread of the virus by avoiding contact with others around us, the protective bubble we’ve created on top of over sanitization is also preventing regular exposure to microbes. We don’t need to fear all microbes, and unfortunately many people have forgotten or are unaware that most microbes are vital for optimal health.
If you were to peer into the little world inside us, you would see lots of tiny microbes – some good and some not so good – but all have a function in maintaining balance in our bodies. Bacteria are single-celled microbes that constantly reproduce by cloning themselves (they get lonely!). They reside from our head to our toes and every place in between. Some microbes actually look like little grapes, lines of soda cans or even the letter “Y” under a microscope. Fungi are the recyclers of the microbial world because they cannot make all of their own food, so they are the designated nutrient cyclers in an ecosystem. Viruses on the other hand are somewhat like zombies. According to scientists, they are neither dead nor living because they need another cell’s machinery to reproduce.
We have been harnessing the power of beneficial microbes for centuries in many clever and familiar ways: cheese, beer, wine, bread pickles, certain drugs, cleaning products, glow in the dark technologies for research and agricultural techniques to boost production. These products would all not be possible without certain microbes.
Most microbes are not dangerous to humans and can be quite beneficial – only less than 1% of bacteria are responsible for disease. Our microbes help to keep our health in check by modulating and training our immune systems; regulating our bowel movements and overall gut health; supporting our digestion with vitamin and chemical production; breaking down sweat on our skin; keeping other bad microbes out of our ears and noses; and controlling our gut-brain connection and mood. Without regular exposure to our microbial allies, we run a much higher risk of illness and disease.
“Probiotics can be the hero in our current germophobic environment to help counter the lack of microbe exposure by adding safe, regulated, and very precise beneficial bacteria to our bodies. They can literally wake up sleepy or lazy microbes and assist in protecting our health.”
Probiotics are live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host. Experts from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and WHO created this definition. To date, probiotics are mentioned in more than 8,000 research articles indexed by PubMed. Probiotics have increased in popularity throughout the past decade as more and more people have experienced the health benefits demonstrated in these studies and felt the difference when using probiotics.
People report feeling better when they are taking a probiotic, which makes sense because when the gut is happy the rest of the body seems to be in synchrony. Probiotic science continues to evolve, and we’re constantly learning more about the positive health outcomes. Different varieties of microorganisms are contained in probiotic supplements, with the most common types being Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. All probiotics do not have the same effects. Probiotics have many different effects within the body, including supporting the balance of good bacteria; producing certain vitamins and other substances; and affecting our mood, weight and more!
There is a general consensus that the probiotics supporting immune function do so by adjusting the microbial balance and interactions with the host immune system. Maintaining a healthy immune system helps the body’s defenses to fight pathogens including viruses, which is important during COVID-19 and flu-season.
Viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 and influenza can cause severe upper respiratory tract infections. Studies have shown that beneficial changes to the gut microbiota can reduce the complications, intensity and duration of upper respiratory tract infections. A consistent, overall body of evidence suggests that probiotics may also decrease the incidence or severity of common infections, including acute respiratory infections. In certain cases, select strains of probiotics may reduce the incidence, severity, and duration of some viral upper respiratory tract infections. While it is difficult to extrapolate results from studies with different strains and different types of respiratory infections, collectively, these results point to support of the immune system using select strains of probiotics. As of now, no probiotic has currently been found to treat the coronavirus, however, research studies are assessing the impact of probiotics with COVID-19.
As we focus on self-care during these extraordinary times, taking something as simple as a probiotic supplement, can compensate for an ultra-clean lifestyle and help us live our best lives.
Bio: Jessica ter Haar, Ph.D., is director of scientific affairs for the International Probiotics Association (IPA) and is a microbiology expert and probiotic educator focused on digestive and women’s health. She holds a doctorate from the University of Groningen in medical microbiology and probiotics for vaginal infections, and a master’s degree in nutrition and nutraceutical sciences from the University of Guelph. Ter Haar is also the founder and chairwoman of “Women and their Microbes,” a scientific conference directed at scientists, clinicians and industry professionals focused on helping women achieve their best possible microbial health during every stage of life. In her professional work with probiotics, she uses her thorough knowledge base to underscore the importance of probiotics, make scientific knowledge accessible, and address unmet medical and research needs. Additionally, ter Haar consults with a variety of companies in the probiotic, pharmaceutical and food industries on strategies to clearly communicate, valorize and leverage scientific benefits and best practices.