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Boosting Gut Health Could Help Your Lungs, Study Suggests

Man holding fermented vegetables

Key Takeaways

  • Probiotics can aid digestive function, but may also improve lung health, recent research suggests.
  • The results were particularly notable among participants who were older or had obesity, two groups that often struggle with respiratory issues.
  • Although supplements may be helpful, other studies suggest getting probiotics from food is a better first step.

Although probiotics are often highlighted for their benefits with digestive function, a study presented at the Digestive Disease Week conference, published in Gut Microbes, suggests they may play a key role in respiratory health as well.

Researchers looked at detailed food and supplement diaries of 220 people who had participated in an earlier study on probiotics and weight loss. They investigated whether probiotic use had an effect on prevalence of upper respiratory infection, and that turned out to be the case.

Those in the earlier research who were in the probiotics group rather than the placebo group had a 27 percent lower overall incidence of respiratory problems. The effect was especially pronounced among participants aged 45 and older, as well as those with obesity.

The idea that the bacteria in your gut can influence your risk of respiratory issues is not an intuitive one, says lead researcher Benjamin Mullish, MD, clinical lecturer in the Division of Digestive Diseases, Imperial College London. However, he says it’s a step toward understanding the complex relationships among the body’s organs.

Age, Obesity, and COVID-19

The fact that probiotics could make a difference in older participants and those with obesity is notable since those groups tend to have a higher incidence of respiratory conditions.

Obesity can cause significant changes to the mechanics of the lungs and chest wall that can lead to asthma-like symptoms, such as wheezing. It’s also associated with decreased immune system function, which can put people with obesity at much higher risk for chronic respiratory disease and can worsen symptoms of COPD.

Pulmonary disease prevalence increases with age and may put older people at higher risk if it's uncontrolled or undertreated, according to research in The Journals of Gerontology. The most common cause is community-acquired pneumonia, which the researchers note is responsible for up to 620,000 annual hospitalizations in older patients.

Another compelling reason to find more solutions for improved lung health is ongoing challenges with COVID-19, which is a respiratory virus. Being able to reduce respiratory infections is essential for preventing severe symptoms, as well as faster recovery for those who’ve had the virus.

Gut-Lung Axis

About 90% of the body’s serotonin—the neurotransmitter most associated with feelings of well-being—is manufactured in the digestive system, and chemical signals between the brain and that system are so crucial it’s been called the “gut-brain axis.”

Although there hasn’t been much research on a similar gut-lung axis, Mullish believes there should be.

Benjamin Mullish, MD

It’s not just that improved gut health creates signals that affect the lungs, it works in the other direction as well. This highlights how changes in the gut microbiome can affect large aspects of our health.

— Benjamin Mullish, MD

“Much like how the brain and gut work together, the same is true for the gut and lungs,” he says. “It’s not just that improved gut health creates signals that affect the lungs, it works in the other direction as well. This highlights how changes in the gut microbiome can affect large aspects of our health.”

A robust gut microbiome that’s full of happy bacteria has been linked not just to improved mood and better breathing, but to a range of other effects, says Mary Purdy, MS, RDN, author of The Microbiome Diet Reset. She notes that research links gut health to:

  • Sustained energy levels
  • Lower risk of obesity
  • Better sleep
  • Stronger immune system
  • Lower rates of cardiovascular disease
  • Fewer food intolerances
  • Better reaction to allergens

“Our gut microbiome is central, literally and figuratively, to the whole body,” she says, adding that when it’s out of balance, you may have digestive upset, but it’s also possible to experience a range of health issues that may not seem connected—such as asthma-like wheezing, sleep problems, and food allergies.

Foods First

Although probiotic supplements can be helpful for those who need significant gut re-balancing, food tends to be the first choice for trying to improve gut health, Purdy says.

Mary Purdy, RD

Our gut microbiome is central, literally and figuratively, to the whole body.

— Mary Purdy, RD

That’s because you get beneficial probiotics, but also vitamins and minerals. Foods high in probiotics tend to be fermented, such as:

  • Yogurt
  • Kefir
  • Sauerkraut
  • Sourdough bread
  • Kimchi
  • Miso
  • Pickled beets
  • Some cheeses

Integrating these into your diet also has the side effect of pushing out less-healthy choices like fried food and sugary snacks, adds Purdy. Having probiotic-rich options will help to bolster your good bacteria, and also boost your lungs, heart, and brain at the same time.

What This Means For You

Research suggests there's a connection between gut health and lung function, and that eating more probiotic-rich food could strengthen both systems.

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