Supplement with a Long Name May Shorten Sick Days

Supplement with a Long Name May Shorten Sick Days
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Galactooligosaccharides may reduce the number of days with cold or flu
Galactooligosaccharides—small substances with a big name—may be a boon to anyone who’s suffered a cold or flu, or anyone prone to gastrointestinal trouble when under stress. If fewer sick days and a tamer tummy sound good to you, you’ll want to learn about a new study on galactooligosaccharide dietary supplements.


Galactooligosaccharides are a type of carbohydrate and fiber known as prebiotics. Humans don’t digest fiber but the healthy bacteria in our gastrointestinal (GI) tracts do. In essence, prebiotics are food for our healthy gut bacteria.

Researchers randomly selected 419 college students to take a placebo pill (no prebiotics), or 2.5 or 5 grams per day of galactooligosaccharides for eight weeks, around the time of final exams. The students completed daily assessments of stress levels (presumably, exams supplied the stress), noting the frequency and severity of cold or flu symptoms, and they keeping a weekly journal of GI symptoms, such as diarrhea, constipation, and heartburn (reflux).

At completion of the study, the researchers noted that:

  • Students who reported higher stress levels experienced more diarrhea, indigestion, and reflux with abdominal pain; more days of cold and flu symptoms; and more severe cold and flu symptoms overall.
  • GI distress scores for diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal pain were lower after galactooligosaccharide supplementation.
  • The intensity of cold and flu symptoms was lower in students taking 2.5 grams of prebiotics at all stress levels, but only the 5-gram daily dose of galactooligosaccharides lowered symptom intensity in students with lower stress levels.
  • 5 grams of galactooligosaccharides reduced the number of days with cold or flu symptoms in normal-weight students, but not in overweight or obese students.

Busting stress, feeling better

This study indicates that acute mental stress can increase GI and cold or flu symptoms. The results also suggest that supplementation with galactooligosaccharides may reduce these symptoms and the number of days with cold or flu. To protect your tummy, try the following:

  • Consider prebiotics. Ask your healthcare provider if a prebiotic dietary supplement is right for you. If you start taking them, go slow, to let you body adjust to the increased intake of undigestible carbohydrates, and drink plenty of water.
  • Stroll away from stress. Regular exercise may decrease stress levels and increase immune function. Take a walk with friends or hit the gym in between study sessions or tough work assignments.
  • Favor real food. Highly processed and junk foods, such as crackers, chips, candy, cakes, cookies, and other baked goods can upset digestion and increase bloating and other symptoms. Stick to whole healthy foods such as vegetables, fruit and dried fruit, nuts, and seeds for study session snacking.

(Am J Clin Nutr 2011; 93:1305–11)

Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health, and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.

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