Gut health innovations: The secrets to optimal wellbeing

The lowdown on emerging science surrounding probiotics and prebiotics.

Probiotics came first, then prebiotics. Your daily routine likely already incorporates these buzzwords that are extremely important to gut health (and whole body health). Taking a probiotic supplement when you’re on antibiotics or eating yogurt packed with probiotics may be a good choice. 

However, that’s just the beginning. Research on gut health is constantly expanding, but we have you covered [1].

Strain-specific probiotics

In addition to targeting specific health conditions or symptoms, different strains of probiotics have different effects on the body. Time to go pro!

Founder of Premier Nutrition, LLC, Renee Korczak PhD, RD, CSSD, LD, notes: “The science of probiotics continues to grow, and as the healthcare community, we are becoming increasingly aware of the specific effects of probiotic strains. “Not all probiotics are created equal and the potential health benefits vary by strain.” [2]

It is important to know that not all probiotics are equal and that the potential health benefits are strain specific. In addition, Kristie Leigh, RDN, Director of Health & Scientific Affairs at Danone North America says that it’s a common misconception that all fermented foods (think yogurt, kimchi, and kombucha) automatically contain probiotics.

“To be considered a probiotic, a bacterial strain must be clinically studied and shown to have a benefit for human health,” explains Leigh. “Research has also demonstrated that different probiotic strains are linked to different benefits, making the benefits of probiotics strain specific.” [3]

“The word ‘probiotic’ isn’t always enough, so be sure to check the label. Find out the full name of the probiotic strain on the label, which is usually a three-part name ending in a combination of letters and numbers, which includes the genus, species and strain information. Aside from doing an online search, Leigh suggests that you look for strains that have been researched and found to benefit human health.

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The science surrounding probiotics and their specific strains is constantly evolving. “Scientific research is increasing in the area of probiotics, especially for benefits related to digestive health and immune health,” comments Leigh [3].

“Studies have shown that some probiotic strains may support the health of the reproductive tract, oral cavity, lungs, skin and gut–brain axis, while newer studies suggest some could improve mental well-being.” [4]

However, it’s important to note, that much of the evidence for using a specific strain for a health condition is anecdotal. As the research continues to evolve, there are sure to be more proven specific use cases for probiotics.

Microbial cocktails

This isn’t your typical drink of choice. Microbial cocktails are a type of supplement that mixes specific strains of probiotics or combines them with other yeast, bacteria, or fungi to reap optimal health benefits. According to Marie E Murphy, MS, RD, CLT, owner and founder of MEM Nutrition & Wellness: “Microbial cocktails increase the diversity of microbiota (aka the gut’s ecosystem).” [5]

Having a wide variety of microbes in the gut is better for digestion, immunity, and overall health. Evidence shows that these multi-strain probiotics, or cocktails, improved the diversity of the gut microbiota in various populations, including IBS patients, pregnant women, and premature infants, as well as in animal models [6789]  

“Although more research is needed to demonstrate the effectiveness in the general population, findings are promising and microbial cocktails have additional benefits beyond increasing gut microbiota diversity,” says Murphy.

Microbial cocktails have also been shown to improve digestion and absorption. “Your diet is only as good as what you’re able to break down, absorb and utilize,” adds Murphy.

This means you can eat fruits and vegetables all day, but if you don’t absorb the nutrients then you won’t reap their benefits. “There is evidence that supplementation with microbial cocktails can help with digestion and absorption.

Minerals like iron are hard to absorb. A recent animal study showed that multi-strain probiotics improved iron absorption,” Murphy explains,

If you’re looking into trying a microbial cocktail, Murphy recommends using Fullscript, an online dispensary that follows strict safety standards and offers high-quality supplements at affordable prices with reliable and temperature-controlled shipping, when needed [11].

Postbiotics

Move over “pre” and “pro,” the new “biotic” on the block is also known as postbiotics. Per the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP), a postbiotic is “a preparation of inanimate microorganisms and/or their components that confers a health benefit on the host.”

In other words, the term ‘postbiotics’ describes the byproducts or metabolites produced by probiotics during their active phase. An example would include probiotics fermenting dietary fiber and producing short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate or acetate, which provide energy to the cells in the colon and have anti-inflammatory effects. 

“What is important to note with this definition is that even though the microorganisms are inanimate, they are not dead; they actually still retain biological activity,” explains Korczak.

According to Korczak, scientific research suggests that postbiotics have a variety of possible health benefits, but needs more research to confirm. Some of these health benefits include helping support the immune system and gut barrier function [11]. 

They may also have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, immune-supportive, cholesterol-lowering and weight-protective effects. Postbiotics can include microbial cells, cell constituents, and metabolites.

They’re typically produced during a fermentation process, but both food and supplements contain postbiotics. If you prefer to incorporate food sources into your diet (as opposed to turning to supplements), choose postbiotic-rich foods like oats, flaxseed, buttermilk, yogurt, cottage cheese, kefir, kimchi, sourdough bread, and kombucha.

Gut health innovations: The secrets to optimal wellbeing

Novel probiotics

As their name suggests, “novel probiotics” are unique or newly discovered strains of beneficial microorganisms. The field of probiotics is constantly evolving, and researchers frequently identify new strains (beyond your typical Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium).

They have different effects on the body and can target specific health conditions or symptoms. According to Murphy, “vaginal health is a relatively new branch of probiotic research. 

A recent clinical trial demonstrated that novel strains of Lactobacillus crispatus are effective at improving vaginal health in patients with bacterial vaginosis and vulvovaginal candidiasis.” [12]

With so many strains of probiotics, it can get confusing what can work best for you. For this reason, Murphy recommends this guide, which lists strains by health condition [13]

However, note that the guide is designed to be used by healthcare practitioners. Always consult with a healthcare provider before starting any new probiotic supplement.

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Synbiotics

Synbiotics are products that contain both prebiotics and probiotics, which work together to benefit your digestive system (aka your gut microbiota). “While synbiotics can help boost the beneficial microbes in our gastrointestinal system, they can also help to provide nutrients (prebiotics) for their [own] survival,” explains Sarah Schlichter, MPH, RD, nutrition consultant and owner of Bucket List Tummy and Nutrition for Running [14]. 

The reason for this, prebiotics are actually the food source for probiotics. They also have protective powers. Unlike many probiotics that break down in the acidic digestive juices in the stomach, prebiotics in synbiotics help the probiotic components survive passage through the upper GI tract.

This allows the probiotics to do their job in diversifying and growing the diverse gut microbiota. Schlicter says that: “Several studies show that synbiotics may be helpful in the management of irritable bowel disease, weight loss, skin health, and more.”

Leigh elaborates and explains the two types of synbiotics: complementary and synergistic. “Complementary synbiotics are a combination of a probiotic and prebiotic studied together to provide a health benefit.

A synergistic synbiotic includes not just probiotics and prebiotics, but also live microbes and prebiotic-like substances studied together and shown to provide a benefit. The research on synbiotics is continuing to evolve with benefits covering many areas of health, including immune and gut health.”

While synbiotics are typically studied as supplements, they occur naturally in food. To get synbiotics through food, Leigh suggests combining foods with prebiotics, such as onions, oats, garlic, and asparagus with probiotics to form a mix of synbiotics.

For healthy adults, Leigh explains that: “There are currently no government guidelines or recommendations about the use of probiotics, including types or amounts. However, we do have some research suggesting that high amounts of synbiotics may lead to mild dehydration and/or constipation.” For this reason, Leigh recommends that consumers should try to increase prebiotic and probiotic-rich foods in their diets.

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[1] https://www.shape.com/gut-health-innovations-synbiotics-probiotics-postbiotics-7497717
[2] https://www.premierdietitian.com/
[3] https://www.nature.com/articles/nrgastro.2014.66
[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6445894/
[5] https://memnutritionwellness.com/
[6] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28625832/
[7] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32617453/
[8] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35185013/
[9] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34792102/
[10] https://fullscript.com/
[11] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22504002/
[12] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36856121/
[13] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/368288910_Clinical_Guide_to_Probiotic_Products_Available_in_the_United_States_8th_Edition_2023_ISBN_978-1-7775181-5-8
[14] http://www.nutritionforrunning.com/

Photograph: YuriArcursPeopleimages/Envato
The information included in this article is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this webpage is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.