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Can probiotics ward off illness?

Updated: Nov 5

Tis the season to get a cold or flu. Let's face it, nobody has time to get ill. Could probiotics be the answer? Let's discuss.

What is a probiotic?

Probiotics are the live organisms that have a health benefit when consumed in adequate numbers. They can come in supplement form, fermented foods and sometimes added to other food products such as cereals too. They work by restoring the natural bacteria in our gut (including our stomach and our colon).

When to use a probiotic?

It makes sense to use a probiotic supplement when you know why you are using one. This will help you get the most out of the probiotic. After all, the strain you choose matters. Think of it like taking medication, you need to take the right medication to improve your particular problem.

Science is emerging and we are starting to discover many different uses for probiotics, identifying the suitable strains along the way. If you don't have a particular health concern, you can take a probiotic as an insurance if you really want to -but don't expect miracles.

What about probiotics and illness?

Our gut microbiota in our large intestine have a key role in regulating our immune system. Which is why researchers have been keen to figure out how we can use this relationship to our advantage to ward off illness.

A recent large study looking at a number of clinical trials found that probiotics may reduce the number of adults diagnosed with upper respiratory tract infections (URTI). This includes colds, influenza and infections of the throat, nose or sinuses. The possible benefits do not stop there. For those with a UTRI probiotics may even reduce the duration of a URTI and reduce the need for antibiotics.

This is exciting evidence. And there's plenty more too. How can we use it to our advantage?

My top tips for optimising your gut health and immune system

  • Invest in a probiotic: Most of the studies used one or two strains (e.g. Lactobacillus plantarum HEAL9, Lactobacillus paracasei (8700:2 or N1115) for more than three months.

  • Eat some probiotics: The amount of probiotics in food will vary batch to batch, but it makes sense to try to get more as these foods are naturally nutritious and pack plenty of flavour. My favourites are live cultures, kefir and kombucha.

  • Eat more plants: Research highlights that more plants is better. The sweet spot seems to be 30 different plants per week. This includes fruit, veg, grains, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes. You might be closer than you think!

  • Plan for prebiotics: Prebiotics help to selectively feed our microbes. They are found in plants, so if you are eating your 30 plants a week, chances are you will already be getting some in your diet. No harm in double checking though. Sources include (but not limited to):

  • Garlic, onions, leeks

  • Asparagus, mushrooms, beetroot

  • Barley, oats, wheat bran, rye bread, wheat bread

  • Flaxseeds, cashews, pistachios

  • Apples, pomegranate, nectarines

  • Chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans


It makes sense to look after our gut health to support our immune health too. Probiotics may be one strategy to help up ward off illness. In addition to a healthy balanced diet (full of plants).

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