The Cold, The Flu, and The Gut

A healthy gut microbiome may be your best immune defense

Cold and flu season might be dreadful, so we’re going to have our probiotics at the ready! We’re covering our bases when it comes to prevention and treatment by gearing up our guts.

What does gut health have to do with anything?

The World Health Organization defines probiotics as “live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.”

Most of us are aware that probiotics and gut health can help improve digestion, but what does that have to do with immunity? Well, a lot, actually. Researchers, including those at Johns Hopkins University, have found substantial interaction between the immune system and the bacteria that populate our gut microbiome. This makes sense, since a huge proportion of the immune system is in the gastrointestinal tract—our gut.

It’s something we’ve always known

While the studies are current, people and animals alike have, for centuries, experienced the medicinal benefits of probiotics and how they help improve gut health through fermented foods like yogurt and kimchi. Even now, the medical field is exploring what probiotics can do for autoimmune diseases, cancer, and our neurological health. But, probiotics may also play a role in improving quality of life by helping us alleviate symptoms and recover faster from the dreaded cold and flu.

An inside job

We’ve probably all experienced cold and flu symptoms at one point, but what exactly is happening to create those symptoms? The runny nose, headaches, sore throat, cough, weakness, discomfort, fever, chills, and ensuing infections are all thanks to a viral infection in the upper respiratory tract.

Because the cause of all this cold and flu misery is a virus, antibiotics aren’t the cure we’re looking for; these important medications are designed to fight bacterial infections—not viral infections.

But that’s not to say that bacteria—in the form of healthy gut bacteria—have nothing to do with fighting an upper respiratory tract infection. Friendly bacteria, from probiotics, don’t interact directly with the virus itself; rather, they promote a heathy gut and subsequently, a healthy immune system.

Taking antibiotics for cold or flu infections contributes to antibiotic resistance—a very serious concern described by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “one of the greatest public health challenges of our time.”

The pros of probiotics

Researchers have described the roll of friendly bacteria in our gut microbiome as defenders that spend their lives “excreting massive quantities of antibodies into the gut” in their quest to control the way our bodies react to outside microbial invaders. This is where probiotics come into play.

Researchers across the world have turned their focus to probiotics and their relationship with immune health.

A study of Croatian children attending day care centres administered half of the children with probiotics and the other half with a placebo. After three months, the researchers found that those who had taken probiotics had a significantly lower risk of respiratory tract infections than those taking the placebo. And those taking probiotics who did develop infections had a reduced number of days of symptoms.

Swedish researchers conducted a study on 272 adults and found that in comparison to the group taking placebos, the group using probiotics experienced milder cold and flu symptoms and a decrease in the infection’s duration. Cases of the cold and flu among participants taking probiotics averaged 6.2 days compared to the
8.2-day duration of their placebo-taking peers.

Power to the gut!

Let’s go with our gut this cold and flu season and gear up with probiotics for a better quality of life. Fewer sick days means more quality time; milder symptoms mean less discomfort. All this and a healthy digestive system to match? Pass the yogurt please!

Other supplements for support


Elderberry extracts have exhibited potent antiviral effects which alleviates cold and flu symptoms as well as shortening duration.


Taking zinc within 24 hours of the onset of cold symptoms may help make for a faster recovery from the common cold while keeping symptoms at bay.


Like elderberries, research suggests that the right daily dose of echinacea has antiviral effects while it also contains antioxidant properties. In a 2014 review of 24 studies involving more than 4,500 subjects, echinacea was found to help in preventing colds.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C supplementation may help alleviate cold and flu symptoms while reducing duration. Its antioxidant effects may help stimulate components of the immune system.

Oil of oregano

Oregano is more than just a tasty spice; it’s also an anti-inflammatory with antiviral effects that’s long been used as a remedy for the symptoms of colds, flu, bronchitis, and other respiratory complaints.

North American ginseng

Taking North American ginseng consistently during cold and flu season may help prevent the cold and flu while lessening symptoms for those who do get sick.


Garlic, in the form of aged garlic extract,
is a powerful antioxidant with antimicrobial and antiviral properties that helps enhance immune cell function to battle cold and flu viruses.

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