When was your last lung-gut axis check-in? It may be key to your lung health, a probiotic expert says.
How are your lungs doing? If you got hit with covid — and the chances are good that you’ve had it at least once — your lung health may be compromised. There are other factors that impact our lungs, too, of course; genetics, pollution, and lifestyle are all risk factors for compromised lung function. Could probiotics help?
If you’re thinking “but probiotics are for the gut,” you’re right. They play crucial roles in digestive health. However, emerging research suggests that they may also offer benefits for lung health. These live microorganisms, found in fermented foods like yogurt and supplements, may help by balancing the microbiome not just in the gut but also in the respiratory system.
“The gut-lung axis concept was first introduced when scientists observed gut microbiome composition (the biodiversity of bacteria and other microbes in your digestive system) correlating with lung health and disease,” C Vivek Lal MD, FAAP, the founder and CEO of ResBiotic, the first science-backed probiotic created specifically for lung health, told Ethos via email.
As it turns out, Lal says, there’s dynamic “crosstalk” between epithelial cells, immune cells, and microbiota happening constantly in your gut and lungs. “Not only are the gut and lung microbiomes connected physically through occasional microaspirations, but metabolites produced by certain gut bacteria have been shown to travel through systemic circulation to support lung health.”
Probiotics for the lungs
According to Lal, there are seven core genera of microbial organisms most often used in probiotic products, such as Lactobacillus — which you find in yogurt and some fermented foods like raw sauerkraut or kimchi. There are actually hundreds of probiotic and commensal bacteria strains that have unique benefits and perform various functions in the body. Lal says these living microorganisms can even benefit multiple body systems at once.
To develop resB — the strain in Resbiotic products — Lal says his team used Lactiplantibacillus plantarum, Lactibacillus acidophilus, and Lacticaseibacillus rhamnosus, “strains with a long history of safe use and have been clinically studied for their gut, immune, and respiratory benefits.” The proprietary blend was formulated by optimizing indicative biomarker responses in tissue cells to best optimize support for the lungs.
Research has shown that a balanced microbiome in the lungs is crucial for maintaining a strong immune response against pathogens. Probiotics can help regulate this balance, preventing the overgrowth of harmful bacteria. Some studies have indicated that probiotics can reduce the frequency and severity of respiratory infections.
“In the last decade, many studies on the use of probiotics for the lungs have surfaced,” Lal says. A 2013 study found that probiotic stimulation of the gut could enhance the T regulatory response in the airway and modulate immune responses in the lungs.
Lal also points to research in 2020 that looked into the role of the gut-lung axis in lung diseases. This particular study, Lal says, observed the use of therapeutic strategies, such as probiotics to manipulate the gut microbiome. A 2021 study found that probiotics may potentially protect against respiratory infections. That double-blind, placebo-controlled trial found the incidence of upper respiratory tract symptoms was 27 percent lower in those who took probiotics during the six-month study.
Additionally, probiotics may have anti-inflammatory properties. Chronic inflammation is a hallmark of many lung conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma. Probiotics may reduce inflammation, thereby potentially alleviating symptoms associated with these respiratory ailments.
One of the primary symptoms of long covid is compromised lung function — and the cases of lung issues are expected to rise in the coming years. A study published last year in the American Thoracic Society’s American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, looked at the percentage of patients who recovered from covid but developed a type of fibrotic lung damage, known as interstitial lung disease, as a result of the illness.
“We estimated that up to 11 percent of hospitalized covid patients had fibrotic patterning after recovery from the acute illness,” said corresponding author Iain Stewart, PhD, advanced research fellow (Rayne Foundation), Margaret Turner Warwick Centre for Fibrosing Lung Disease, National Heart and Lung Institute, Imperial College London.
“Whilst many people experience prolonged breathlessness, the major implication of these findings is that a substantial number of people discharged from a covid hospitalization may also have fibrotic abnormalities in their lungs. These results should help concentrate efforts to closely follow at-risk patients. This follow-up should include repeat radiological imaging and lung function testing,” Stewart said.
He added, “For some people these fibrotic patterns may be stable or resolve, while for others they may lead to longer term lung fibrosis progression, worse quality of life and decreased life expectancy. Earlier detection of progression is essential to improving outcomes.”
Covid and lung health
While Lal can’t say for sure that probiotics can help with long-term lung damage from covid, he does say there are no known contraindications with ResBiotic’s probiotic strain. And, he says, other scientists are doing this work with similar strains already, with promising results.
Lal says he’s also seen some preclinical work looking at vasaka leaf — a plant used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat respiratory issues — for the management of covid symptoms.
While you should always speak with your doctor before starting a new supplement — particularly if you’re living with long covid symptoms — Lal says lung-specific probiotics could see some quick benefits from probiotics, with little to no side effects.
“How long it takes to notice the benefits of a probiotic supplement depends on what you’re taking it for,” Lal says. “Gut health benefits tend to be one of the first noticeable changes, taking anywhere from a few days to a week, while systemic benefits build up over time.” Lal recommends taking the probiotics for three months to experience the full benefits.
“The key with probiotic supplements is consistent daily use,” he says.
Related on Ethos: