A healthy gut is critical for overall health, with research showing advantages like improved brain health, better sleep, effective digestion, a healthier heart, a robust immune system and the ability to fight off infection.
Studies over the past few decades have found links between gut health and:
- the immune system,
- mental health,
- autoimmune diseases,
- endocrine disorders,
- gastrointestinal disorders,
- cardiovascular disease,
Various gut health treatments are available to enhance overall health by supplementing the composition or function of gut microorganisms like bacteria, fungi, and viruses.
Did you know that we have as many bacteria as cells in our body? That's a lot of hungry bacteria.
Gut Health Treatments or Microbiome Therapeutics
While research is ongoing, adding dietary supplements have been found to improve gut health.
Several approaches to these treatments include probiotics, prebiotics, postbiotics, synbiotics and faecal microbiota transplants (FMT).
Other approaches include:
- the use of small molecules that target specific microorganisms or pathways in the microbiome,
- antibiotics and other drugs to selectively eliminate certain microorganisms,
- the use of gene editing technologies to alter the microbiome in a more precise and targeted manner.
Overall, microbiome therapeutics hold promise as a new approach to treating a wide range of health conditions. But more research is needed to fully understand their potential and to determine the most effective and safe practices for their use.
In summary, probiotics are live beneficial bacteria consumed to improve health, prebiotics are the non-digestible carbohydrates that feed these bacteria, and postbiotics are the by-products produced by the beneficial bacteria in the gut microbiome.
The gut is home to a diverse community of microbes known as the microbiome, which plays a vital role in maintaining overall health and well-being.
Probiotics are live microorganisms, typically bacteria or yeast organisms, that benefit gut health and immune function. Known as "good" or "helpful" bacteria, they help maintain the gut microbiome's balance and improve digestive and immune health. Other microorganisms include fungi and viruses.
Probiotics are found naturally in fermented foods and can also be taken as supplements.
Not all probiotic strains are created equal. Each probiotic has a slightly different profile and action in our bodies. So, while we often talk about probiotics, their individual effects are limited.
Probiotic supplements can contain a single strain or a blend of multiple strains. Each strain provides slightly different results. For example, some strains are effective for diarrhoea, others can help with high cholesterol, and others best used for eczema.
A common misconception is thinking that probiotics stay in your system. Where in fact, depending on the strain, they actually only remain in your intestine for about one to three weeks. Therefore, consistency is critical.
Prebiotics are not bacteria at all but are non-digestible food fibres that act as food for the live bacteria in our gut. These food fibres stimulate probiotics' growth and activity, helping nourish and support healthy bacteria.
An ideal prebiotic can resist breaking down from stomach acid, bile salts, or pancreatic enzymes and enters the lower section of our gastrointestinal tract unscathed and freely available to feed our gut bacteria.
Prebiotics are found naturally in foods like skins from apples, bran, and root vegetables. Other examples of starch resistant foods include peas, beans, lentils, potatoes, plantains, green bananas (as a banana ripens, the starch changes to a regular starch), and whole grains such as barley, oats and rice that has been cooked and cooled.
Then there are the polyphenols and phytochemicals, the actual colour pigments found in foods like artichokes, asparagus, garlic, onions, plantains, and sea vegetables.
In addition to getting prebiotics from food, they can also be taken as supplements.
Synbiotics refer to a combination of probiotics and prebiotics. Since prebiotics are an excellent fuel source for the live bacteria in probiotics, it only makes sense to combine them.
Some studies have suggested that synbiotics have a range of potential health benefits, including improving digestion, boosting the immune system, and reducing the risk of certain diseases.
A recent randomised controlled trial in 2021 showed that synbiotics could decrease cardiovascular risk factors, metabolic syndrome prevalence, and insulin resistance indicators.
This study shows how big of an impact synbiotics can make, not only on our gut health but on our overall health.
One important thing to note is that not all strains of probiotics benefit from being paired with all types of prebiotics. Therefore, eating a diverse diet and utilising a researched synbiotic supplement that supports the specific pairing is vital.
This area of research is now in its infancy, but more data is coming out every day.
Finally, there are the postbiotics, the leftovers after the probiotic bacteria ferment the prebiotics. While it sounds like a waste product, these leftovers have functional bioactive compounds that play a crucial role in maintaining gut health.
They restore the balance of bacteria in the gut by providing nutrients and energy for the beneficial microbes to grow and thrive.
What do postbiotics do for our health?
1. They help treat diseases that plague the human immune system. We already know that much of our immune system stems from our gut. So, postbiotics should be beneficial.
Other immunomodulatory therapies are widespread and have been used to treat cancer, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, Influenza A virus, and other diseases and to develop vaccines.
2. Their anti-tumour effects are attributed to the anti-inflammatory effect of the postbiotics, plus their interaction with genes. While there isn’t a lot of research on this yet, one in-vitro study saw a reduction in colorectal tumour cell invasion.
3. Infection prevention. Research has shown that a few postbiotics have antimicrobial effects by enhancing the intestinal barrier. So pathogenic bacteria are less able to bind and cause issues.
A series of studies in children found that intake of postbiotics was associated with a decrease in diarrhoea, acute gastroenteritis, pharyngitis, laryngitis, and tracheitis.
4. Postbiotics can reduce cardiovascular disease risk. Short-chain fatty acids appear to have statin-like effects while reducing inflammation, preventing cholesterol and accumulation, and even reducing lipid concentrations.
While inflammation is a normal immune response to injury or infection, chronic inflammation leads to various health, including heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. Postbiotics can also reduce inflammation by modulating the immune system and inhibiting the production of pro-inflammatory compounds.
Demand for postbiotics is also growing because early research has suggested that postbiotics may provide other potential health benefits,
- reducing allergy symptoms,
- improving digestion, relieving constipation and diarrhoea,
- treating colic symptoms.
Postbiotics are less risky because they are not living organisms like probiotics, so they are a better alternative for high-risk or sensitive individuals.
Various foods contain postbiotics, including fermented foods such as yoghurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut. These foods are rich in live cultures of beneficial bacteria, which can help improve bacteria’s balance in the gut.
There is a growing interest in using postbiotics as a dietary supplement. However, postbiotic supplements are not widely available, although a growing selection is being sold, primarily direct to customer (DTC). For example, one popular postbiotic pack generates around $60 000/month on Amazon.
It is important to note that while postbiotics may have health benefits, they should not replace traditional medical treatments. If you are experiencing digestive issues or other health problems, you should consult a healthcare professional to determine the appropriate course of treatment.
In conclusion, postbiotics are metabolic by-products produced by the activity of microbes in the gut. that have shown numerous health benefits, including improving gut health, boosting the immune system, and reducing inflammation.
So while they may contribute to a healthy diet further research is needed to fully understand their potential and determine optimal dosages and duration of use.
FMT (Faecal Microbiota Transplants)
FMT involves the transfer of a healthy person's microbiome to the gut of someone with a specific health condition.
In this procedure, a sample of faeces from a healthy donor is collected and transplanted into the digestive system of a patient with a gastrointestinal disorder.
After screening for infectious diseases, the donor faeces are transferred using a colonoscopy or enema.
The goal of the procedure is to restore the balance of beneficial bacteria in the patient's gut, disrupted by factors such as antibiotics, poor diet, or certain medical conditions.
FMTs treat conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), including Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, and Clostridioides difficile (C. difficile) infection, a type of bacterial infection that can cause severe diarrhoea and other symptoms.
FMTs may also be a potential treatment for other conditions, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and liver disease.
Although shown to be effective in some studies, FMTs need more research to understand their potential benefits and risks.
Other health options for improving gut health:
1. Lower stress levels
With options like:
- spending time with friends or family
- limiting alcohol intake
- practicing yoga
- spending time with a pet
2. Get enough sleep
Not getting good quality sleep may seriously impact your gut health, which can contribute to more sleep issues.
3. Eat slower
Thoroughly chewing your food may help you reduce digestive discomfort and maintain a healthy gut lowering your chances of developing obesity and diabetes.
4. Stay hydrated
Drinking plenty of water may be linked to increased diversity of bacteria in the gut, though the source of the water matters. One 2022 study also found that people who drank more water had less of a type of bacteria that can cause gastrointestinal infections.
Staying hydrated benefits your health overall and can help prevent constipation. It is also a simple way to promote a healthy gut.
5. Check for food intolerances
You may have a food intolerance if you have symptoms such as:
- abdominal pain
- acid reflux.
You can eliminate common trigger foods to see if your symptoms improve. If you can identify and avoid foods that contribute to your symptoms, you may see a positive change in your digestive health.
6. Change your diet
Reducing the amount of processed, high-sugar, and high-fat foods you eat will lead to better gut health.
Eating a diet high in fibre contributes to a healthy gut microbiome as well. You can also positively impact your gut by eating foods high in micronutrients like:
These are not overnight cures; like any other health, regimens that have lasting results need long-term consistency.
The exciting world of probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics, and postbiotics can improve both your gut and overall health.
The number of microbiome therapeutics studies published last year increased by 15%, suggesting that the space is getting more attention.
The increased interest is leading to more microbiome supplement launches. The Mintel database estimates that microbiome product launches increased by approximately 17% last year. And this space has plenty of future growth — with the market for microbiome therapeutics expected to grow eightfold in the next four years.
On the other hand, these products' growing interest and success have attracted an expected motley crew of "get-quick-results" social media "experts" who "reveal exactly how you can transform your gut health with one simple thing". Unfortunately, expecting an instant cure is just wishful thinking!