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Probiotics and the Immune System

by Mark Brudnak PhD ND(more info)

listed in colon health, originally published in issue 292 - February 2024

 

Probiotics are live microorganisms that confer health benefits when consumed in adequate amounts. They are found in various foods and dietary supplements, including yogurt, kefir, and fermented vegetables. Probiotics have been shown to improve digestion, boost the immune system, and reduce inflammation. In this essay, we will explore the relationship between probiotics and the immune system, including their mechanisms of action, efficacy, and safety.

Mechanisms of Action

The immune system is a complex network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to defend the body against harmful pathogens, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi. The immune system also plays a critical role in maintaining tissue homeostasis and preventing autoimmune disorders.

Probiotics are believed to modulate the immune system by several mechanisms, including:

  1. Regulation of gut microbiota: Probiotics can modulate the composition and activity of gut microbiota, which can affect the immune system. The gut microbiota plays a crucial role in immune function, as it can activate or suppress immune cells and influence immune responses.
  2. Production of antimicrobial substances: Probiotics can produce antimicrobial substances, such as bacteriocins and organic acids, which can inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria and viruses.
  3. Modulation of cytokine production: Probiotics can modulate the production of cytokines, which are signaling molecules that regulate immune responses. Probiotics can increase the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines, such as interleukin-10 (IL-10), and decrease the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, such as tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha).
  4. Stimulation of immune cells: Probiotics can stimulate the activity of immune cells, such as natural killer cells, macrophages, and T cells, which can enhance immune responses.
  5. Enhancement of gut barrier function: Probiotics can enhance the function of the gut barrier, which can prevent the entry of pathogens into the body and reduce inflammation.

 

Gut-brain_axis_overview

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gut-brain_axis_overview.jpg

Credit: Chao Yin-Xia et al  via Wikipedia

 

Efficacy of Probiotics

Several clinical trials have investigated the efficacy of probiotics for immune function. A systematic review and meta-analysis of 20 randomized controlled trials found that probiotics significantly reduced the incidence of respiratory tract infections, including the common cold, flu, and pneumonia. The review also found that probiotics improved immune function, as measured by increased production of cytokines, such as IL-10 and interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma), and increased activity of natural killer cells.

Another systematic review and meta-analysis of 17 randomized controlled trials found that probiotics significantly reduced the incidence and severity of antibiotic-associated diarrhea. The review also found that probiotics improved immune function, as measured by increased production of cytokines, such as IL-10 and IL-12, and increased activity of natural killer cells.

Several clinical trials have also investigated the effects of probiotics on immune function in specific populations, such as infants, children, and elderly individuals. A systematic review and meta-analysis of 17 randomized controlled trials found that probiotics significantly reduced the incidence and duration of acute respiratory infections in infants and children. The review also found that probiotics improved immune function, as measured by increased production of cytokines, such as IFN-gamma and IL-10, and increased activity of natural killer cells.

Another systematic review and meta-analysis of 12 randomized controlled trials found that probiotics significantly reduced the incidence of respiratory tract infections and improved immune function in elderly individuals. The review also found that probiotics improved gut barrier function, as measured by reduced intestinal permeability and increased production of mucin, a protective protein that lines the gut.

Overall, the evidence suggests that probiotics are effective in improving immune function and reducing the incidence and severity of respiratory tract infections and antibiotic-associated diarrhea. However, the efficacy of probiotics may vary depending on the type and dose of probiotics used, as well as the individual's gut microbiota and immune status. Therefore, further research is needed to determine the optimal type and dose of probiotics for different populations and conditions.

Safety of Probiotics

Probiotics are generally considered safe and well-tolerated when consumed in adequate amounts. However, in rare cases, probiotics can cause adverse effects, such as bloating, gas, and diarrhea. The risk of adverse effects may increase with higher doses and certain types of probiotics, such as strains of lactobacilli and bifidobacteria.

There have also been reports of serious infections, such as sepsis and endocarditis, associated with the use of probiotics in immunocompromised individuals. Therefore, caution should be exercised when using probiotics in these populations, and consultation with a healthcare professional is advised.

It is also important to choose probiotics from reputable sources, as some products may not contain the labeled dose or strains of probiotics. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate probiotics as drugs, but as dietary supplements. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the manufacturers to ensure the safety and quality of their products.

Probiotics have been shown to modulate the immune system by regulating gut microbiota, producing antimicrobial substances, modulating cytokine production, stimulating immune cells, and enhancing gut barrier function. Several clinical trials have demonstrated the efficacy of probiotics in improving immune function and reducing the incidence and severity of respiratory tract infections and antibiotic-associated diarrhea.

However, the efficacy of probiotics may vary depending on the type and dose of probiotics used, as well as the individual's gut microbiota and immune status. Therefore, further research is needed to determine the optimal type and dose of probiotics for different populations and conditions.

Probiotics are generally considered safe and well-tolerated when consumed in adequate amounts. However, caution should be exercised when using probiotics in immunocompromised individuals, and consultation with a healthcare professional is advised. It is also important to choose probiotics from reputable sources and to follow the manufacturer's instructions.

Probiotics offer a promising avenue for improving immune function and addressing infections, providing a safe and effective alternative to traditional treatments. Further research is needed to fully understand the mechanisms of action and potential benefits of probiotics on the immune system. Nevertheless, probiotics represent a valuable addition to the armamentarium of healthcare professionals and patients seeking to maintain optimal immune function and overall health.

Probiotics have emerged as a promising tool for improving immune function and preventing infections, offering a safe and effective alternative to traditional treatments. By modulating the gut microbiota, producing antimicrobial substances, modulating cytokine production, stimulating immune cells, and enhancing gut barrier function, probiotics have the potential to improve immune function in a variety of populations and conditions.

Although the evidence for the use of probiotics in improving immune function is promising, the efficacy may vary depending on the type and dose of probiotics used, as well as the individual's gut microbiota and immune status. Therefore, further research is needed to determine the optimal type and dose of probiotics for different populations and conditions.

It is also important to exercise caution when using probiotics in immunocompromised individuals, as there have been reports of serious infections associated with their use. Additionally, it is crucial to choose probiotics from reputable sources and to follow the manufacturer's instructions to ensure their safety and efficacy.

In conclusion, probiotics represent a valuable addition to the armamentarium of healthcare professionals and patients seeking to maintain optimal immune function and overall health. Future research is needed to fully understand the mechanisms of action and potential benefits of probiotics on the immune system. However, with the increasing awareness of the importance of gut microbiota and its role in immune function, probiotics are likely to continue to gain popularity as a safe and effective strategy for improving immune function and preventing infections.

Further Reading:

  1. Wieërs G, Belkhir L, Enaud R, Leclercq S, Philippart de Foy JM, Dequenne I, de Timary P, Cani PD. How Probiotics Affect the Microbiota. Front Cell Infect Microbiol. 15;9:454. Jan 2020.
  2. Singh VP, Sharma J, Babu S, Rizwanulla, Singla A. J Role of probiotics in health and disease: a review. Pak Med Assoc  63(2):253-7. PMID: 23894906. Feb 2013.
  3. Zawistowska-Rojek A, Tyski S. Are Probiotic Really Safe for Humans? Pol J Microbiol. 67(3):251-258. doi: 10.21307/pjm-2018-044. PMID: 30451441. 2018.
  4. Yan F, Polk DB. Probiotics and immune health. Curr Opin Gastroenterol. 27(6):496-501. Oct 2011.
  5. Gupta V, Garg R. Indian J Med Microbiol. ;27(3):202-9. Jul-Sep 2009.

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About Mark Brudnak PhD ND

Mark Brudnak PhD has authored over 40 peer-reviewed scientific and trade journal articles and is recognized worldwide as a leading expert in the areas of probiotics and enzyme. Brudnak has written or contributed to books such as The Probiotic Solution, Probiotics For Dummies, PCR In Neuroscience, Pathway Cloning: Investigation Of A Novel Eukaryotic Cloning And Cellular Engineering System. Dr Brudnak  the Technical Director for MAK Wood, Inc., where his duties included technical writing, research, and product support/development. His major areas of interest are anti-cancer nutrients, enzyme therapy, pro/prebiotics and biologically active carbohydrates and peptides. Dr Brudnak also maintains a consulting practice in Grafton, WI USA and can be reached via mark@markbrudnak.com  https://markbrudnak.com/

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