DNA sequencing has made it clear that hundreds of species of microorganisms inhabit the human body. While it’s too soon to tell exactly what a “healthy” microbiome looks like, it seems that greater diversity is probably a good thing and that some species have an especially beneficial effect on our health. Providing fermentable substrates (“prebiotics“) to the gut bacteria is an efficient way of increasing both the quantity of some beneficial microorganisms and the production of short-chain fatty acids. Probiotics also increase the quantity of beneficial critters in the body, but they are usually more important in regards to “priming” the immune system and improving the quality and diversity of the microbiome.
Problems with most probiotic supplements on the market today
- Most probiotic supplements only contain a handful of species of bacteria
A healthy gut contains hundreds of species of bacteria, and just getting a couple of strains from a supplement won’t make that much of a difference
- Most probiotic supplements are based on lactic acid bacteria
Lactic acid bacteria do have a beneficial effect on health, but the bacteria in these supplements most likely aren’t able to permanently colonize the gut (DNA transfer is however possible)
- The shelf life and viability is often poor
The potency of probiotic supplements is affected by storage temperature, and the numbers of probiotic bacteria in the products often decline with time. Another issue is that some probiotic bacteria don’t survive and reach the colon.
- A lot of probiotic supplements don’t contain the listed species of bacteria
- The effect of probiotic bacteria in isolation is questionable
Probiotic supplements can in some ways be compared to vitamin supplements. The whole idea behind vitamin supplements is to isolate certain micronutrients, as increasing the consumption of these vitamins supposedly will improve your health. The production of probiotic supplements is based on the same premise; some species of bacteria that have shown favorable results in clinical trials are isolated and used in capsules.
We know that the absorption rate of most vitamins and minerals depends on the availability of other micro- and macronutrients. For example the absorption of vitamin A is poor in the absence of fat, and vitamin C improves the absorption of calcium. In general, it seems that the various components in food work synergistically and that we don’t get the same effect when we isolate the various compounds. Is it possible that the same mechanisms apply for probiotic bacteria? F.ex: The bacteria and yeasts in Kefir work together to ferment the milk and we get a probiotic food with an unique bacterial composition. Do the probiotics in Kefir work in the same way if we use 1 or 2 of the bacteria in a probiotic supplement?
- More research on Soil Based Probiotics is needed
Probiotic supplements with SBOS’s (Soil Based Organism’s) might be more effective than lactic acid supplements, but more research on soil based probiotics is needed to establish the effectiveness of these supplements
As our understanding of the human microbiome (microbes and their genes) increases, we are slowly learning more about the makeup of a healthy microbiome. This information can be used to design a new generation of probiotic supplements that contain entire ecosystems of bacteria. The research on the hunter-gatherer microbiome will play an espeically important part in the development of a new type of probiotic supplement. Although a healthy diet seems to be the most important factor in regards to maintaining a healthy microbiome, Probiotics 2.0, in combination with other sources of prebiotics and probiotics, could be the next era in the prevention and treatment of all sorts of diseases.