Over the past decade, research into and understanding of the microbiome has increased exponentially. For some time, fermented foods have been known to have benefit, and the active bacteria in them, mostly lactic acid forming bacteria, have been praised for established benefits in digestion and immunity. The research into the microbiome has been made possible by development in genetic sequencing, big data management and diagnostic tests and evaluations from blood, to saliva to various markers, and finally to stool sample analysis.
Research into the activity and mechanisms of action into what’s going on in the microbiome is a complex science. It’s not as if you can feed someone probiotics for a few weeks and suddenly notice, at a clinically valid scale, that they have better digestion or immunity. First of all, what is normal when it comes to levels of a particular microbe and what is normal diversity? if you can’t measure normal then how can you measure abnormal? And there are so many complications, whether they are pre-existing conditions, diet, stress, sleep and many more. Finally, not all people respond the same.. or for the same amount of time. So it’s a complicated field, but probiotics as a category has grown to over $1B USD annually. Much of the activity of probiotics traditionally has been attributed to the production of a family of compounds called short-chain fatty acids. One Definition reads "They are produced when the friendly gut bacteria ferment fiber in your colon, and are the main source of energy for the cells lining your colon.” We’ll find out in a bit that it’s not so simple.
We’re getting more and more information about the microbiome and how it operates every day. We’re also getting a better understanding of interactions within any of the microbiomes in our system - and if we’re going to be thorough, that includes oral, skin, gut and also vaginal microbiomes. Probiotics have been the first product category really researched and commercialized from all this new data and studies of mechanisms of action. However, food and GI researchers have known for some time that certain kinds of fiber impact the microbiome and also have health benefits. This has led to the recent rise of prebiotics as a category and research topic.
For the purposes of this discussion, I will use the prebiotic description currently offered by the Global Prebiotic Association (https://prebioticassociation.org). To the GPA, a prebiotic is "A nutritional product and/or ingredient selectively utilized in the microbiome producing health benefits.” To many, this definition is a bit strange since they perceived prebiotics to be synonymous with fiber. Others may have had the perception that prebiotics are simply 'food for the good bugs’. New information and science is challenging both of these perceptions and prebiotics can now officially be considered (By GPA as well as by ISAPP, the International Scientific Association for Prebiotics and Probiotics) to include other ingredients including resistant starch, some polyphenols found in fruits and vegetables and even bacteriophages that don’t feed the good bugs, but actually work by eliminating some bad bugs, creating an environment where the good bugs thrive more. In fact, there are 7 different mechanisms of action:
- Enhance nutrient uptake
- Block nutrient uptake
- Enhance binding site
- Block binding site
- Increase viability
- Decrease viability
As you can see, only one action above (nutrient) is actually acting as a direct food source. More and more research is providing an understanding of mechanisms of action, or howthese nutritional products or ingredients act on a chemical, molecular or receptor binding level. The next few years of research will open up new avenues for using prebiotics alone or with probiotics in combination (synbiotics) for a number of health conditions including gut health (including inflammatory conditions such as leaky gut and other sensitivities), immunity, and also mood-related issues since there is also a very well established gut-brain connection. If the gut is in a state of dysbiosis (an imbalance between the types of organism present in a person's natural microflora, especially that of the gut, thought to contribute to a range of conditions of ill health), increasingly there is being investigated cases of mood or brain related issues.
Already we are seeing signs of an emerging prebiotic dietary supplement market, and digestive formulas now containing pre and probiotics. We are also seeing bars and beverages talking about prebiotic benefits,plus work on and in the microbiome continues frantically, aided by AI, data processing capabilities and diagnostic tools.
Watch this space.
Global Prebiotic Association: https://prebioticassociation.org
International Probiotic Association: http://internationalprobiotics.org
Prebiotic resource page: (Disclosure, hosted by Prenexus, a supplier of XOS, a prebiotic ingredient): http://prebiotics.com