Do probiotics for colds and flu really work? We'll share five ways probiotics help, what they are, how they work to boost your immune system, and which ones are best.
Note: It takes time to build up the numbers of protective organisms in your digestive track. For best results, start taking live culture foods before cold and flu season gets into full swing.
5 Ways Probiotics for Colds and Flu Help
Studies have shown the effectiveness of probiotics. Benefits include:
- Fewer fevers
- Less coughs and runny noses
- Faster recovery
- Less antibiotic use
- Better quality of life
We'll share more details on the studies below, but first, let's review the basics of probiotics.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are beneficial microorganisms similar to the “friendly” bacteria found naturally in the body's digestive tract. Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) of Maryland states that we each house two to five pounds (1.0 to 2.26 kilograms) of live bacteria inside our bodies.
On average, we have 10 bacteria cells for each single human cell. We are more bacteria than we are human – strange, but true. (This makes using all those antibacterial products sound like a bad idea, doesn't it?)
How do probiotics work?
Antibiotics work by killing bacteria, both friendly and unfriendly. Probiotics add good bacteria to your body. Adding more probiotic bacteria can crowd out the bad bacteria, at at the very least make it more difficult for them to thrive. (This is the type of probiotic I use in addition to fermented foods.)
Using Probiotic Supplements for Colds and Flu
An 18 month study that examined the effect of probiotics Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium animalis on children aged 3 to 5 showed fewer symptoms, faster recovery time and less antibiotic use.
- the Lactobacillus acidophilus group had 53% fewer fevers, 41% fewer coughs, and 28% fewer runny noses than the placebo group
- the group given both bacteria strains had 72% fewer fevers, 62% fewer coughs, and 59% fewer runny noses than the placebo group
- the Lactobacillus acidophilus group recovered from cold symptoms 32% faster and the two-bacteria group recovered 48% faster than the placebo group, when they did get sick, with less antibiotic use (68% and 84% less, respectively)
(Better results than the flu vaccine, and no side effects.)
In the article “Probiotics are secret weapon for fighting symptoms of the common cold in college students, study suggests” at Science Daily, they quote a study that tested a specific probiotic blend, which found:
“that while all students caught colds at roughly the same rate, the students who took the probiotic supplementation experienced: • A duration of colds that was two days shorter (four days vs. six days) • Symptoms that were 34% less severe and • A higher quality of life that resulted in fewer missed school days (15 vs. 34 missed by students taking the placebo).”
Using Naturally Fermented Foods for Colds and Flu
In the article “Probiotics and the Flu“, the National Kefir Association states:
Probiotic-containing foods like kefir are essential during cold and flu season for preventing offending molecules from entering the bloodstream and creating reactions that can cause symptoms of ill health.
South Africa-based Ingrid van Heerden, D.Sc, “DietDoc” for www.health24.com, says that probiotic containing foods like kefir are important for maintaining a strong natural defense system because they stimulate the production of immunoglobulin in the intestines, which improves the body's immune response.
If you consider how much surface area there is in the digestive track (some estimates calculate that it forms up to 70% of the immune system), it makes sense that keeping it healthy helps to keep you healthy.
Can I make probiotics at home?
Yes, you can make probiotics at home, and it's easy! I have instructions on the site for making:
Any naturally fermented product (live culture food) that is not heat treated (pasteurized) can introduce good bacteria into your body.
You can buy cultures to get started online, and you may be able to find them from friends (kefir grains and kombucha scobys may multiply when you brew). There are also online culture swap groups. Many vegetable ferments (such as kraut) can be started with just some salt, salt water, or salt and whey.
I am an affiliate for Kombucha Kamp, and I trust them to provide quality cultures, including scobys and kefir grains.
Which Probiotics are Best?
If you purchase probiotics for colds and flu, make sure you look for live and active cultures. Read the label – you want good bacteria that are still frisky. Watch out for brands that are full of sugar and/or artificial ingredients. These work against your body’s ability to heal.
Fermenting at home can provide healthy foods for pennies on the dollar compared to store products. You can also “sneak” probiotics in for fussy eaters by making snacks such as probiotic smoothies.
If you are in the middle of an active cold with phlegm production, non-dairy probiotic options are probably a better choice.
Probiotics are not a “magic bullet” and there is no guarantee that you won't get sick. Adding live culture foods to your diet is just one thing you can do to stay healthy.
Remember to always wash your hands, cough into your elbow, and contact a trained health care provider in case of serious illness.
More Help for Cold and Flu Season
If you've found this post helpful, you may also enjoy other posts in the series, such as:
- Herbal Antibiotics
- Knock Out Cold and Flu Germs with Essential Oils
- The Best Vitamins and Minerals for Fighting Colds and Flus
- The Best Herbs and Spices for Colds and Flus – Plus a “Secret Weapon”
- Stomach Flu Treatment – Why the BRAT diet may not be your best choice
- Thieves Vinegar – Immune Booster and Germ Killer
If you want to know more about making your own probiotics for colds and flu (or any time of year), check out The Complete Idiot's Guide to Fermenting Foods.
First published in 2014, last updated in 2019.