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If you watch television medical dramas, you’ve probably heard the phrase “He’s septic!”

Sepsis is a life-threatening illness that occurs when the human immune system overreacts to an infection, releasing chemicals into the blood that cause widespread inflammation in the body and potential injury to tissues and organs.

It can affect anyone, but people with compromised immune systems — such as the elderly, people with illnesses like AIDS and cancer, and newborns — are particularly susceptible.

Worldwide, fatalities number between 6 and 9 million deaths with about 1 million deaths during infancy (although the CDC has noted the difficulty in accurately tracking sepsis deaths).

Most of these deaths are preventable, however, and a new study shows a promising method to get the immune system back on track: probiotics.

Probiotics have been found to boost favorable bacteria that naturally occur in our gut microbiomes and, despite their small size, play a starring role in regulating our immune system.

To study how probiotics might counteract infant sepsis infections, researchers led by pediatrician Pinaki Panigrahi, MD, of the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health, conducted a large, randomized, double-blind trial of 4,556 babies living in rural India where sepsis rates among infants are high.

The findings, published in the journal Nature, show a 40 percent reduction in risk of death and sepsis among babies who ate probiotics for a week — particularly the strain Lactobacillus plantarum which is commonly found in fermented foods like pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchi.

The babies who ate the good microbes also showed a lowered risk of other infections, including a 34 percent reduction in lower respiratory tract infections.

While the results need further study, probiotics show potential to be an inexpensive, life-saving treatment for improving the immune systems of the most vulnerable members of society.

Want to put good bacteria to work boosting your immunity? Here’s a full list of foods naturally high in probiotics — and in the fiber-rich prebiotics that help those good bugs thrive.

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