Once thought to be limited to digestive benefits, it’s becoming clear that having a good profile of beneficial bacteria in the gut can benefit many facets of health. Many terms beyond pre and probiotics (such as synbiotic) describe supplements that benefit our gut microbiome, but what do they all mean and how do they differ?
Pre and Probiotics
Effectively meaning “for life”, probiotics are beneficial bacterial cultures that colonize and grow in the gut. They have demonstrated the ability to produce beneficial compounds and probiotics also ‘overcrowd’ harmful bacteria in the gut, as microflora of all types must compete for space and nutrients and ultimately, survival.
The benefits of a strong presence of beneficial bacteria are wide reaching. Probiotics can support and enhance immune function (even being linked to reduction of risk of certain cancers), improve the absorption (or bioavailability) of mineral nutrients and of course improved digestive health. Probiotics have also been linked to improving satiety, the feeling of fullness which can help contribute to weight management.
Prebiotics often describe complex carbohydrates (such as lipopolysaccharides) which are indigestible to humans but can be digested by probiotic bacteria. This digestion has been shown to encourage the health and growth of probiotic bacteria, especially lactobacilli and bifidobacterium.
The concept of synergy describes when two items come together to form something greater than their sum. This also describes the relationship between pre and probiotics, which support each other’s functions, especially as prebiotics can enhance the survivability and growth of probiotics as such, as the term ‘synbiotic’ is born.
The gut-brain axis
Though in its infancy, research into the relationship between the brain and the microbiome of the digestive system is highlighting the importance of probiotic formulas. Stress released hormones such as cortisol have been shown to detract from the health of beneficial bacteria. Simultaneously, beneficial bacteria can produce beneficial compounds such as short chain fatty acids, leading to enhanced production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, the ‘feel good’ hormone.
Importance of Quality
In 2017, a report from the European Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition showed that many probiotic supplements are subject to poor quality control measures. As a result, probiotic strains are frequently misidentified, contaminated or reach the shelves with non-living cultures. The author quotes that
Although there are probiotic preparations licensed as medicinal products(pharmaceuticals/drugs), most of them are categorized as food or dietary supplements(USA, Europe)…dietary supplements have to comply with significantly less stringent regulatory criteria.(1)
1) Reference: Kolaček S, Hojsak I, Berni Canani R, Guarino A, Indrio F, Orel R et al. Commercial Probiotic Products. 2017.