The closing days of summer and the return to school almost inevitably lead to the spread of new germs. School children do their best demonstration of sharing with one another with the germs they bring to school, which are then taken back to the rest of the family.  This year’s swine flu has brought a backlog of phone calls to schools, doctors’ offices and public health officials. The swine flu for most that have been infected has mainly been an illness that has required treatment at home, plenty of fluids and rest and then normal return to activities. Nonetheless, ideally, infections would be prevented and the severity of infections reduced. The supplemental probiotics may be the answer to help our bodies resist various types of infections this winter.

The term probiotics refers to the various bacteria that live inside our intestinal tract. These bacteria are actually useful to our bodies, providing a variety of functions.  These bacteria are beneficial to our immune system, and research is bringing to light how powerful these helpful bacteria can be. These good bacteria can help prevent infections by outnumbering and crowding out the bad guys (unwanted bacteria or other infectious diseases). Probiotics also help to bolster the immune system throughout the body.

Traditional use of probiotics has been to help problems with the GI tract. Irritable bowel, bloating and diarrhea are common symptoms where probiotics may be used.  Probiotics are commonly used to help children and adults when infectious agents, like viruses, cause diarrhea. The probiotics themselves do not necessarily kill the bugs, but help the body through the infection. The probiotics do seem to help prevent reinfection and may even help the body produce antibodies against the infectious bug [Source: Solis, Walker]. Probiotics have also improved treatment rates against the bacteria suspected of causing stomach ulcers [Source: Park]. It is no surprise that given the billion plus numbers of good bacteria in our intestinal tract, these important bacteria play a critical role in keeping this environment healthy.

The benefits of probiotics expand beyond the intestinal tract. In fact, there is quite a bit of research to say that probiotics may actually help prevent respiratory infections such as the cold and flu. The increasing media coverage of the swine flew has concerned many parents, teachers, school administrators and entire communities on what to do.  Fortunately, probiotics show evidence to help prevent respiratory infections. Probiotics have benefitted the elderly in the prevention of infections while in the hospital [Source: Fukushima].  Probiotics have helped reduce potentially infectious bugs like staph and strep from making a home (colonizing) in the nose [Source: Gluck]. Taking a combination of a multivitamin and probiotics helped reduce the incidence and severity of colds and flu’s for three months [Source: Winkler]. The Epstein-Barr virus has been implicated in chronic fatigue. Probiotics have been used to help treat the reactivation of the Epstein-Barr virus by increasing the body’s production of interferon, which helps decrease the viral load [Source: Clancy].

In addition, probiotics help prevent vaginal infections as well as bladder infections [Source: Kopp-Hoolihan, Falagas, Reid, Andreu]. Probiotics are recommended to be taken during the use of antibiotics to prevent the loss of the good bacteria in the intestines, and then for even a few weeks after to make sure that the bacterial flora is maintained after antibiotic treatment. Since antibiotics kill bacteria, some of the good bacteria may be lost as well.  Antibiotics do not kill fungi (or yeast), so the loss of the good bacteria needed to police some of the bad bugs gives the yeast in the gut a major opportunity to grow beyond its welcome. This can lead to bloating, vaginal infections, thrush and even greater problems.  Treatment with probiotics can help prevent these problems from ever starting. Probiotics can be dosed once a day for prevention, or two to three times daily to help treat current infections. Probiotics should be used alongside medical or herbal antibiotic treatments, but not in place of them. Some probiotics come refrigerated, whereas others are not.  Refrigeration is not always needed, though for some brands it does ensure high amounts of probiotics in the container. Dosing for probiotics is typically done in CFU’s, colony forming units, with recommended dosing starting 1-5 billion CFU for maintenance and 20 or more CFU taken 2-3 times a day when the body is fighting an infection. Side effects are extremely rare with probiotics, but a few cases of infection have occurred in patients with indwelling catheters.

Probiotics represent a very helpful, safe and effective tool in the prevention of many types of infections. Great for intestinal problems, probiotics may be a very helpful option to prevent or lessen the colds and flu’s seen this coming winter. Keep probiotics in mind to maintain the body’s own healthy immune arsenal.