Winterize Your Immune System: The Power of Probiotics to Fortify Immune StrengthMichael Vertolli, RH December 3, 2015
When clients ask me what they can do to avoid respiratory infections during the winter months, they are often surprised that the first thing I recommend is a good probiotic supplement. Probiotics have been an integral part of my protocol for treatment of respiratory infections for three decades.
The use of probiotics has long been recommended in natural healing circles to replenish gut bacteria during and after the use of antibiotics, and to assist the treatment of overgrowth of unhealthy organisms in the digestive tract. In the latter situation, probiotics are known for their ability to compete with unfriendly microorganisms, thus shifting the balance in a more positive direction.
Lesser known is the fact that probiotics also have the ability to compete with unfriendly microorganisms in the respiratory tract. Typically, probiotics are taken in the form of capsules and tablets that release their contents into the stomach (or duodenum if they are enteric coated) and therefore the organisms only reach the digestive tract. In order to broaden their benefits into the region of the respiratory tract, it is necessary to take probiotics in powder form mixed with water so that some of the organisms remain in the mouth and throat. From there they can spread deeper into the sinuses and lungs.
Historically, the use of probiotics (even for the treatment of digestive disturbances) was considered as snake oil by the medical profession. But recently this has changed significantly. The variety and function of numerous organisms that live on the exterior and interior surfaces of our body has been extensively studied over the last decade. These organisms actually outnumber our own body cells by a factor of 9 or 10 to 1! In spite of this, we continue to routinely wipe them out with antibiotics, even though we have only just begun to understand their function.
The Delicate Dance of Microorganisms Within Us
Until recently we referred to the organisms that live in the human digestive tract as ‘gut flora’. However, this terminology is incorrect. Most of these organisms are bacteria and a few of them are fungi. They are not plants and therefore the term ‘flora’ is inaccurate. More recently the term ‘gut microbiome’ has been used. This term means the ecosystem of microorganisms that live in the gut.
It is much more accurate but, in terms of the bigger picture, it slightly misses the point because it implies that the ecosystem is limited to microorganisms. In reality, distinct individual organisms, whether they be trees or dogs or human beings, are largely an illusion (like shamans and mystics have been saying for millennia). We exist, not as distinct entities, but as a series of relationships.
Therefore the biome really consists of a complex interaction between the organisms that live on and in us and our body cells (ultimately it doesn’t end there because we are not separate from the environment that we live in).
The complexity of interactions between the human body and the ‘other’ organisms that inhabit it is beyond comprehension. Because of this, disturbances of the balance of organisms within the microbiome are potentially connected to virtually any health disturbance that we suffer from! This needs to be considered in any holistic protocol. Furthermore, the tendency to attribute health imbalances to just one single cause, such as parasites, is not quite correct. Every person’s situation is a unique result of all the ways that they interact with the world in which they live. There are no single linear causes where health is concerned.
Steps to Maintaining a Healthy Ecosystem Within the Body
What we now know is that the benefits of probiotics for the prevention and treatment of infectious conditions goes way beyond ‘friendly’ microorganisms competing with ‘unfriendly’ microorganisms. The interplay between our microbiome and our immune system is integral to the normal functioning of our immune system and our body as a whole. It would not be an exaggeration to say that ,in many ways, our microbiome is part of our immune system even though its members do not contain our DNA. Our immune system is not designed to work in isolation from the world within and around us. It is designed to work with our microbiome, not against it. This means that a healthy ecosystem on the surface of our body is a prerequisite to a healthy ecosystem “within” our body. Maintaining a healthy microbiome is essential to our health.
The microbiome of each individual is unique. It depends on many factors such as where we live, what we eat, our history of the use of antibiotics and other antimicrobials (including natural ones!), and other factors. To promote the growth of healthy microorganisms, the best place to start is our diet. When our digestive system is functioning properly, carbohydrates, proteins and lipids are broken down into their component parts and absorbed into the body. The only thing that should be left over and eliminated is fibre, which primarily consists of carbohydrates with chemical bonds that our digestive enzymes can’t break down. Not surprisingly, the kinds of microorganisms that should be living in a healthy digestive tract are primarily organisms that eat fibre. When our diet does not include sufficient fibre it will disturb the balance of organisms living in our gut.
Similarly, if the digestive system is not functioning efficiently and there are carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids in the gut that are not getting broken down and absorbed, this will shift the balance towards the growth of organisms that eat these nutrients instead of primarily those that eat fibre. In short, it is impossible to have a healthy immune system if we don’t have a healthy digestive system!
On a symptomatic level, taking probiotic supplements can, to some degree, help to compensate for poor digestive function. However, in reality it’s the other way around. In order to have a healthy microbiome we need to eat the right diet and we need a healthy digestive system to properly digest the food we eat.
Prebiotics Promote a Healthy Microbiome
A diet that supports a healthy microbiome is one that includes a lot of vegetables and fruits. It should be rich in fibre and complex carbohydrates. Of particular importance are soluble fibres such as pectins in fruits; mucilaginous fibres such as those found in flax, chia and psyllium seeds, and oat bran. Foods that promote a healthy microbiome are called prebiotic.
One group of prebiotics that have received some attention recently is the fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS). These are relatively small polysaccharide molecules primarily composed of the sugar fructose. They contain chemical bonds that our digestive enzymes can’t break down so that they are part of the fibre component of our diet. They are an excellent food source for many species of beneficial gut bacteria. Fructo-oligosaccharides such as inulin are very common in the latex of the roots of plants from the Aster family. They occur in the roots of many common herbs such as purple coneflower (Echinacea spp.), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), chicory (Cichorium intybus) and elecampane (Inula helenium). Although, for therapeutic purposes, I primarily use these herbs in the form of fresh root tinctures, when using them as prebiotics it is better to take them as a tea because the amount of herb required per unit dose is much higher to make a tea than a tincture and quantity is important for prebiotics. Purple coneflower and elecampane roots are a bit too strong for this purpose. Dandelion, burdock, and chicory are better. Even better still is to eat them. If you would prefer something with a milder flavour and better texture, try Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus). They are from the same family but, because they are tuberous, they are milder and more palatable as a food.
Still on the subject of diet, many fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and miso tend to be both prebiotic and probiotic. Some of the important dietary factors that contribute to an unhealthy microbiome are processed foods and over-consumption of simple carbohydrates (sugars) and animal proteins.
Boost Your Digestion with the Right Foods and Herbs
The flip side of the diet discussion is good digestive function. To promote a healthy digestive system it is important that we don’t overeat, and that we minimize snacking so that we don’t overwhelm our digestive system. It is important that our stomach be empty of the contents of our previous meal before we eat the next one, rather than working it constantly because we are eating too much, too frequently. It’s also best if we don’t eat anything for at least two hours before we go to bed and that we are in a calm, relaxed state when we eat, and for at least an hour afterwards.
Bitter, aromatic, and warming herbs promote the production of digestive enzymes. A good digestive tincture or tea before or after a meal can be helpful (before is best). Some of our best digestive herbs are common spices, and the liberal use of spices in cooking also helps promote good digestion.
However, excessive pungency (hot spices) can over-stimulate our digestive system. Mild to medium pungency is best. Many aromatic spices such as cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum), sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), oregano (Origanum vulgare), marjoram (O. majorana) and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) not only aid digestion but are antimicrobial as well!
As you can see, the health of our microbiome, digestive system, and immune system are interconnected. Therefore, one important way to boost our immune function and prevent infection is to eat a good diet, make sure our digestive system is functioning well, and support the health of our microbiome. Since no matter how healthy our lifestyles and diets are, there are still going to be factors that can disturb the balance of organisms in our gut, the periodic use of a good probiotic supplement is an important part of a healthy regimen. However, it’s important to keep in mind that healthy lifestyle practices are the most important thing to focus on.
Probiotics in Action
Taking probiotics all of the time is not recommended. I generally recommend taking them daily for a month, a couple of times per year. In particular, it’s recommended to take them just before those times when we are most likely to get sick. In most of the northern hemisphere, the months of September, December, and March are particularly good times to take probiotics.
Probiotic supplements are best taken on an empty stomach (at least two hours after food) with at least 175-250 ml (6-8 oz) of pure water (no chlorine!). Contrary to some claims, probiotics are fairly resistant to stomach acid. Taking them in this way ensures that the amount of stomach acid is minimum because there is no food to stimulate acid production and the water will dilute what little is present. Wait at least 20-30 minutes before eating or drinking anything other than water or fibre.
It is important to add probiotics to water in powder form and swish each mouthful around in the mouth for a bit before swallowing. This will ensure that some of the culture gets into the mouth and throat. This is important because the mouth and throat are the primary entry point into the body for most pathogenic organisms. We need to have a healthy microbiome in this area to prevent pathogens from taking hold. It is not necessary to buy probiotics in powder form. They actually keep better in capsules. Simply open up the capsule and pour the contents into a glass of water.
The effectiveness of a probiotic supplement can be enhanced by taking it with a prebiotic. The best way to do that is to take the probiotic in warm (not hot) water and add a tablespoon of some source of mucilaginous fibre. Psyllium husks or whole flax or chia seeds (or some combination of them) work best. It is important not to use ground flax or chia seeds because grinding them releases other nutrients that stimulate stomach acid production. In this application we want to use them strictly as a fibre supplement, not as a source of other nutrients. You don’t have to wait until the fibre gels before you drink it (most people find this unpleasant). It will gel quickly in your stomach as long as the water is warm.
Choosing a good probiotic supplement is also important. It should contain at least 10 billion active cells. It is also important that it contain at least six (preferably more) different strains of bacteria. There was a time when it was almost impossible to get strains other than Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum (formerly called Lactobacillus bifidus). Fortunately, there are now many other strains available. It is particularly important that a probiotic supplement also contain L. plantarum, L. rhamnosus and L. salivarius. (Also, the requirements of infants are different than adults. If you are giving probiotics to children up to the age of one or two, make sure you choose a product that is specific for that age.)
In addition to using probiotics to help boost our immune system and prevent infection in general, they should also be used under the following circumstances:
- whenever we travel (beginning one week before we leave until one week after we return); taking probiotics once per day is good as a preventive or while traveling
- whenever we are using antibiotics (concurrently and for one month following antibiotic use); they must be taken twice per day, at least one hour before or two hours after the antibiotics
- or whenever we have a respiratory or digestive tract infection, take probiotics twice per day
Generally, the best time to take probiotics is 20 – 30 minutes before meals or bed. Before breakfast is best.
Get Ready for Winter
So, getting back to my original point, I recommend that you always keep a good probiotic supplement on hand in your fridge. As soon as you feel like you might be getting sick, start taking it right away. It’s also best to have a good herbal tincture formulation for infections on hand and start taking that right away too. Make sure it’s one that contains some Aster family herbs so that they will help nurture your microbiome as well. The key is to have them on hand as soon as you need them. The sooner we start using them, the quicker and more effective the results. Thus prepared, we are ready for winter!
Michael Vertolli is a Registered Herbalist practising in Vaughan (just north of Toronto). He is the Director of Living Earth School of Herbalism, which offers in-class and online general interest courses, certificate, and diploma programs. For more information: 905-303-8723. Visit his website: www.livingearthschool.ca Blog: michaelvertolli.blogspot.ca