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.