As most of us know, probiotics are a great way to improve gut health. Many scientific studies have shown that taking probiotic supplements or eating fermented foods can lead to better digestion, healthy elimination, and a stronger immune system. These benefits are crucial to the daily maintenance of the body and its many functions.
Your immune system is one of the most important factors in your health and wellbeing, and one that depends on the health of your gut. After all, around 70 percent of your immune system cells live in the lymphatic tissue of the gut! Probiotics are one of the best ways to keep these precious cells in optimal condition.
But here’s something even more incredible: probiotics may soon be the new vaccines!
In ground-breaking research, scientists have found that some probiotic strains can positively affect the immune response of patients who receive vaccines. Even more exciting: in the near future it may be possible to genetically modify probiotics so they completely replace regular vaccines.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are bacteria – but they’re the ‘good’ or ‘friendly’ kind that we need to survive. Specifically, probiotics are live microorganisms provide us with numerous health benefits. They can be taken as a supplement or consumed in certain foods such as sauerkraut or yogurt.
You need probiotics to keep your gut in balance. Your gut contains something like 100 trillion microorganisms, including bacteria, yeasts like Candida albicans, single-cell eukaryotes, viruses, and even parasites. The location of these microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract depends on their number, type and function. When the gut is “in balance”, the majority of bacteria are the good, health-promoting kind, and the body is able to function efficiently as a result.
Gut bacteria begin to accumulate in the gut when you’re born, and their composition goes through many changes as you age. The quantity and quality of our gut bacteria depends largely on your diet, but also external factors such as your lifestyle, genetics, environment, health conditions and even emotions. In turn, your bacteria contribute to your body’s ability to keep you well.
Some of the major functions of probiotic bacteria:
- Digesting and fermenting food
- Producing vital nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids
- Protecting against harmful pathogens
- Counteracting ‘bad’ microorganisms such as Candida
- Maintaining integrity of the gut lining
- Filtering out toxins
Probiotics And Adaptive Immunity
It’s now known that the intestinal microbiota play a major part in activating pathways in the immune system. These pathways are involved in controlling both the innate and adaptive immunity in the gut. In fact, it’s believed that improving the gut microbiota may be the key to building resistance to disease.
This hypothesis came to light following the poor performance of oral vaccines in developing countries, where children typically have a poor gut microbiota. After being treated with antiparasitic drugs (and therefore improving their gut health), children showed a better immune system response. This shows the importance of a healthy intestinal microbiome.
What Is A Vaccine?
There are a few differences between vaccines, vaccinations, and immunizations:
- Vaccine: A substance that causes the body to produce immunity from a disease. A vaccine is usually delivered through injections or by mouth.
- Vaccination: The injection of a killed or weakened organism that causes the body to produce immunity against that organism.
- Immunization: The process by which a person or animal becomes protected from a disease. This can be due to a vaccine, but some diseases can also result in immunization after a person recovers from the disease.
Probiotics As Vaccines
A review published in 2017 examined 26 studies which looked into the use of probiotics alongside vaccines. These studies had tested the efficacy of some 40 different probiotic strains used along with 17 different vaccines. About half of these studies reported probiotics to improve the effectiveness of vaccines. The effect was strongest for oral vaccines and parenteral influenza vaccination. Efficacy varied widely depending on the strain of the probiotics, dosage, purity and the timing of supplementation.
The fantastic thing about probiotics as vaccines is that they are relatively cheap. More research is required to determine which strains are best for which diseases.
The future is even more exciting. In 2011, Chinese researchers attempted to modify a probiotic to use as a vaccine. They did this by adding pieces of Helicobacter pylori, the gastrointestinal pathogen, to the probiotic bacteria Lactobacillus acidophilus. They fed these altered bacteria to mice, and saw positive results.
The ‘vaccinated’ mice showed higher levels of antibodies against the specific strain of H. pylori bacteria, suggesting their bodies had developed a resistance to it. The researchers concluded that L. acidophilus is indeed a promising vaccine antigen – and a more cost-efficient one. Subsequent studies have looked at using probiotics for HIV and other conditions.
Which Strains Do What?
Altered bacteria, like those discussed above, are not yet available to consumers. However, the probiotic bacteria that you find in your health store supplement already offer you some protection from disease.
One of the most well-known strains of probiotics is Lactobacillus acidophilus. This powerful bacterium lives naturally in the human body, mainly in the gut. It works to protect us against pathogenic bacteria that can enter the body through food we eat or air we breathe. It’s usually present in fermented milk products such as yoghurt.
Studies have suggested that L. acidophilus is one of the most important bacteria involved in activating your immune system. It seems that L. acidophilus not only modulates the immune system response, but encourages a natural resistance against certain illnesses.
This was tested in a 2008 study, in which pigs were infected with a viral pathogen. Some of the pigs had been treated with L. acidophilus. Incredibly, the pigs given the L. acidophilus showed an enhanced immune response and were protected against the viral pathogen.
Another important study found that adults treated with seven different strains of probiotics were able to produce much more efficient immune responses. The adults were given either probiotics or a placebo, then an oral cholera vaccine. Those who received Bifidobacterium lactis and L. acidophilus showed a significant increase in IgG immune cells compared with the control group, heightening their body’s defense system against cholera. Their immune response was also faster. This showed that specific probiotic strains are able to potentiate the immune response.
Another promising strain is Lactobacillus casei, which appears to boost immunity against rotavirus. Infants aged between 2-5 months old were treated with either L. casei or a placebo after being given their routine rotavirus vaccination. Those who received the probiotic treatment showed a higher level of the type of white blood cells needed to fight rotavirus.
The clinical significance of this study was that the L. casei had an immunostimulating effect on the rotavirus vaccine, essentially making it more powerful. The researchers suggested that probiotics have the potential to enhance vaccines, and should be studied further.
The probiotic Bifidobacterium breve has also been found to improve children’s immunity against cholera. In a study conducted in Bangladesh, children were given dosages of B. breve every day for four weeks, as well as two doses of the oral cholera vaccine Dukoral. The children receiving the probiotic showed a higher count of white blood cells needed to fight cholera than those who received a placebo.
Looking Ahead: The Future Of Probiotics As Vaccines
Probiotics go a long way in improving our daily lives, from digestion and elimination to nutrient absorption and energy production. Their potential to protect us from serious disease is yet another example of their powerful health benefits.
At present, more research is needed to determine the efficacy of probiotics as vaccines – and also which strains can be adjusted to produce immunity against disease. Using probiotic bacteria as a means of boosting oral vaccines has already been demonstrated, and promises to be hugely beneficial in developing countries where diseases are widespread.
Scientists are now explore the ways in which different probiotic strains can provide immunization without the need for oral vaccines at all. Probiotics as vaccines could prove to be not only a more effective means of preventing disease, but also more cost-efficient and easier to administer.
Probiotics form a really important part of our Candida treatment plan. The goal of the plan is to improve your gut health, fight a Candida overgrowth, and increase energy levels. Probiotics, both from food and from supplements, are a vital piece of the program.