Probiotics and Prebiotics Show Promise for Treating Lung Disease


Scientists are excited about exploring new treatments for chronic lung diseases using what they are finding out about the lung microbiota (also commonly called “microbiome”). They are drawing on research on the gut microbiota, which has a much longer history. The two systems affect each other in what experts call “cross-talk.” That’s why researchers believe that what we eat or ingest may influence our lungs. Many hope probiotics and prebiotics could be important elements in treating lung disease.

Probiotics-the word means “for life”-are defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” Most common among those microorganisms are bacteria in the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium families. Certain yeasts may also be present. Evidence has shown that they may work by competing with “bad” bacteria. Probiotics are found in fermented foods such as yogurt. Probiotic supplements are also available.

Prebiotics, on the other hand, don’t contain microorganisms themselves but favor the growth of bacteria that normally live in us. They are non-digestible food ingredients. A commonly cited example of a prebiotic is dietary fiber.

Some very preliminary research shows promise for the use of probiotics for lung diseases and infections. For example, an Italian study, published in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition in 2014, of children and adults with mild to moderate cystic fibrosis found that those who were given drops of a lactobacillus probiotic for six months had fewer disease flare-ups and upper respiratory tract infections than those who were not.

The bottom line. Probiotics and prebiotics may someday be used to benefit the lung microbiota directly. There may be a way, for example, to remove a microbiota from diseased lungs and install a new one. But research in the area of probiotics and prebiotics and the lungs is in its infancy. Much more study is needed, including high-quality clinical trials that focus on people with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and pulmonary fibrosis.

Before you take any supplement to treat lung disease, talk to your doctor, and keep in mind that supplements are not reviewed for safety and effectiveness by the Food and Drug Administration.