Probiotic supplements do not take the place of proper vaccinations, nor do they function as a cure.
What’s the short answer?
Probiotics won’t make you immune to the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) or prevent you from developing COVID-19. Probiotics can’t treat or cure COVID-19, either. But they may help relieve some symptoms associated with the virus. Probiotics can support a healthy gut microbiome, which is the collection of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microscopic living things that live in your intestines.
Sound gut health and a balanced microbiome play an important role in immune health and sickness recovery, says Sabine Hazan, MD, creator of ProgenaBiome, a genetic research sequencing laboratory. As such, there’s reason to believe that supplementing with probiotics can help protect you from illnesses, including COVID-19, she says.
What are probiotics? Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that live naturally in the body. They’re designed to help maintain or repopulate the “good” gut bacteria that help keep your digestive system regulated.
What does the research say about COVID-19 and gut health?
Over the last 3 years, scientists have conducted several studies to try to figure out exactly what causes COVID-19 and what people can do to protect themselves from the illness and recover from it faster. And yes, that includes research exploring the potential connection between probiotics, gut health, and COVID-19.
One 2020 study found that people who were hospitalized with COVID-19 had a different make-up of bacteria in their guts than those without the respiratory virus. After comparing the fecal samples of both populations, the researchers noticed that those with COVID-19 had both fewer “good” gut bacteria and more “bad,” or disease-causing, bacteria.
Also, the researchers recorded a correlation between how much a person’s gut microbiome was disrupted and how severe their case of COVID-19 was. Put simply, these findings suggest that people who develop moderate to severe COVID-19 may experience changes on a gut level.
One 2021 study found that people with poor gut health conditions experienced more severe cases of COVID-19 than those with sound gut health.
So… what does the research say about COVID-19 and probiotics?
Good question. Recent research suggests that regulating the gut microbiome via probiotic supplementation may help remedy some of the digestive health symptoms and side effects associated with COVID-19.
Indeed, a 2020 study of 318 people hospitalized with moderate to severe COVID-19 found that nearly two-thirds (61%) of participants experienced gut symptoms, such as loss of appetite, diarrhea, or nausea.
Researchers in one 2022 study concluded that probiotic supplementation could be used alongside vaccines to help prevent infection, due to the antiviral effect of probiotics and their metabolites. In other words, probiotics may help the body fight against infectious pathogens.
A different 2022 study also suggested that probiotics may help reduce the occurrence of symptoms. For this study, researchers compared symptoms in people with COVID-19 who took a probiotic to those who received a placebo. They found that those given the probiotic were less likely to develop COVID-19 symptoms.
What do clinical trials say about COVID-19 and probiotics?
First, let’s get clear about what a clinical trial is, exactly. Sometimes clinical trials and clinical studies are thought to be synonymous terms. Here, we’re relying on definitions from The National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The NIH defines a clinical study as research using human volunteers. A clinical trial, on the flip side, is a study that’s designed to answer a very specific question about treatment. So, what do clinical trials exploring the impact of probiotics on COVID-19 reveal? In summary, probiotics may be beneficial to people with COVID-19.
“In one clinical trial, ImmunoSEB (systemic enzyme complex) and ProbioSEB CSC3 (probiotics complex) were given as a supplemental therapy to mild to moderate COVID-19 patients in the hospital,” explains Abhijit Rathi, a technology manager for Advanced Enzymes.
Those who received the supplement cocktail spent fewer days in the hospital, had significant reductions in the inflammatory markers, and experienced less fatigue, he says. In a different clinical trialTrusted Source, researchers gave participants with long COVID the same enzyme-probiotic combo. They found that 91% of people who took the combo were fatigue-free within 14 days, while just 15% of those who took the placebo were fatigue-free that quickly.
What’s the verdict on probiotics in foods?
“Eating probiotic-rich food is one way to ensure that your gut health is optimal,” says holistic health expert and doctor of chiropractic Suzanna Wong, founder of Twin Waves Wellness Center in San Diego.
Common probiotic-rich foods include:
A common dosage for the average adult is 10 to 20 billion colony-forming units per day, according to older research published in the American Family Physician.
To get a sense of just how much that is, consider that half a cup of kimchi typically contains about 2.5 billion colony-forming units. So, you’d have to eat 2 full cups per day of kimchi to eat the average amount, which is no small feat.
“Because even most probiotic-rich foods have a lower probiotic count than the recommended daily amount, many people would benefit from taking a clinically proven probiotic supplement,” says Rathi.
OK, and what’s the verdict on probiotic supplements?
Interested in supplementing with probiotics? As with any supplement, it’s best to talk with a healthcare professional before adding one to your routine.
That’s because probiotics can interfere with certain immunosuppressants and some gastrointestinal treatments.
If you do get the green light to supplement with probiotics, Wong suggests a supplement that meets the following criteria:
“You may find additional probiotic bacteria in your supplement, which is absolutely fine so long as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria are in there,” she says.
Keep in mind probiotics aren’t a quick fix. “It takes a while to build up protective bacteria in the gut,” says Wong.
What can you do to help prevent COVID-19?
It should go without saying, but probiotic supplementation shouldn’t be the only protective measure you take against COVID-19.
To help prevent COVID-19, you should also:
- Get vaccinated and boosted when eligible.
- Wear a mask, especially when indoors or around other people outdoors.
- Maintain at least 6 feet of distance between yourself and others whenever possible.
- Improve ventilation and filtration in the indoor spaces you control, if possible.
- Move indoor activities outdoors whenever possible.
- Wash your hands correctly and consistently.
- Test often, if possible, especially if you have been exposed or are experiencing symptoms.
COVID-19-specific protocols aside, Wong recommends dialing in other facets of health, too.
“COVID-19 doesn’t pick who it infects, but the healthier you are, the more likely you are to get through the illness without having all of the side effects that people experience,” she says. “Your body is more likely to be able to fight the infection easier.”
Maintaining good health can include:
- Eating nutrient-dense foods.
- Moving your body regularly.
- Consuming enough water.
- Limiting alcohol and drug intake.
- Prioritizing sleep.
- Managing stress levels.
What can you do to help reduce your risk for long COVID?
Long COVID is also known as:
- long-haul COVID
- post-COVID conditions
- post-acute COVID-19
- post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection
- long-term effects of COVID
- chronic COVID
The symptomsTrusted Source associated long COVID can vary, but often include:
- mental fatigue
- physical fatigue
- difficulty breathing
- chest pains
- menstrual changes
- stomach pain
Currently, little is known about what causes long COVID. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source, you may be more likely to develop long COVID if you:
- are unvaccinated
- experience severe COVID-19 illness, especially if you’re hospitalized or require intensive care
- experience multisystem inflammatory syndrome during or after COVID-19 illness
- have other underlying health conditions
The bottom line
Probiotic supplementation can support overall gut health, which can then support immune health. As such, probiotic supplements can be used as one part of an immune-boosting protocol to help reduce the likelihood of infection. They may also reduce the incidence of some COVID-19 symptoms. However, probiotic supplements do not take the place of proper vaccinations, nor do they function as a cure.