Can probiotics help us fight coronavirus disease? – analysis
Coronavirus disease (Covid-19) has affected more than 2.4 million people in 185 countries. It infects the lungs and airways, causing acute respiratory infection. An inflammation in the lungs causes pneumonia and sometimes leads to a fatal overreaction of the body’s immune system called cytokine storm syndrome. The good news is that among the asymptomatic cases that tested positive for Covid-19, many could successfully fight the infection. This speaks volumes about our immune system and its ability to protect us. And that’s where our hopes reside.
To fight coronavirus disease, there are several classes of drugs in development, including antivirals, immunotherapies, and vaccines. However, developing a vaccine is a lengthy process, as it requires rigorous evaluation to ensure both safety and efficacy. Medications that have been used for the treatment of Covid-19 include hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial medication, and azithromycin, a combination of HIV medications, remdesivir, which was previously used to treat the 2014 Ebola outbreak. However, they require more data and scientific validation to improve clinical results. A comment published in Lancet states that steroids provide little benefit to Covid-19 patients and, in some cases, can do more harm than good.
A landmark study published earlier this year in Nature Medicine by researchers at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute), Australia, showed that the immune system can play a vital role in deciding the course of the disease. This was observed when a 47-year-old Wuhan woman traveling to Australia with a non-severe case of Covid-19 recovered quite quickly, without experiencing complications such as respiratory failure or acute respiratory distress, highlighting the role of the immune system. .
But even a strong immune system needs support to constantly fight infection and an avalanche of viruses, bacteria, and harmful toxins. To maintain its optimal function, you need nutrients that boost the immune system, physical activity, adequate hydration, and good quality sleep. Another important way to develop immunity against Covid-19 is to maintain intestinal health, because more than half of the body’s immune system is located in the intestine.
An obvious way to improve gut health is to ensure a steady supply of beneficial microbes, which helps maintain a balance between the trillions of bacteria integral to the gut. In addition to increasing the body’s immune response, they also strengthen innate and acquired immunity, help maintain overall health, and help fight infection.
Some of the Covid-19 patients in Wuhan were observed to have atypical gastrointestinal symptoms, and the virus was also detected in some of the faecal samples, suggesting a link between the intestine and Covid-19. This raises a question: can probiotics help fight coronavirus disease?
A systemic review and meta-analysis of 20 clinical trials worldwide found that probiotics reduce inflammation, specifically the inflammatory marker for C-reactive protein. A Cochrane review of 12 studies, based on a sample of 3,720 children, adults, and the elderly, suggested that consumption of probiotics may be associated with fewer people with upper respiratory tract infections and a lower incidence of infection. Dr. Irene Lenoir-Wijnkoop, chief scientist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, has observed that the use of probiotics could save health care costs and loss of productivity due to acute respiratory tract infections.
However, the benefits of probiotics are strain-specific, and it is important to identify the strain of bacteria that is scientifically proven for benefit. Some strains of Lactobacillus gasseri, Bifidobacterium longum and Lactobacillus casei, Shirota strain, have been shown to increase immunity and reduce the incidence of upper respiratory tract infections or the common cold and flu.
The Chinese National Health Commission and the National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine have used probiotics along with conventional treatment in patients with Covid-19 infection to improve the balance of intestinal flora and prevent secondary bacterial infections.
From the way science works, we are still not sure of a clear benefit of probiotics in Covid-19 patients. But since most of our immunity resides in the intestine, which is determined by the type of bacteria present there, it may be worth ensuring a balanced intestinal flora. It could well be our best bet to fight Covid-19.
Dr. Neerja Hajela is secretary, and NK Ganguly is president of Gut Microbiota and Probiotic Science Foundation.
The opinions expressed are personal.