Are Synbiotics the Future of Microbiome Management?

The complexity of the human body makes most of us paralyzed with indecision.

Nothing we encounter in this world – the workplace, our love lives, our skills and trades – comes close to rivaling the intricacies of the body’s systems.

And so we seek – we study, research, pay professionals, take and reject advice. We try.

As intimidating as the body is at large, the microbiome is itself a microcosm of the entire ecosystem of one complete body. And as we know, any false moves can grind many other operations to a halt

Prebiotics, probiotics, fermented foods, gut cleanses… They’re all doing something, but are they doing enough?

Synbiotics go beyond what pro- and pre-biotics do. In fact, they combine both efforts. The science is a little complicated, but we’re going to break it down right here.

Quick refresher:

Probiotics: live, beneficial bacteria that we can ingest and thus introduce to the existing bacterial community in our guts

Prebiotics: insoluble (or indigestible) fibers that the good bacteria in our guts eat, helping them to multiply and crowd out bad bacteria

A synbiotic, as a supplement or in our food, simultaneously adds new bacteria while feeding the existing bacteria.

One less bottle of pills to buy, right?

Let’s investigate.

The Quarter-Life of Synbiotics

25 years ago, researchers introduced the idea of synbiotics. During the interval years between then and now, scientists struggled to agree on its exact meaning and application.

What makes something a synbiotic? What are the qualifications? Where can they be found naturally? What different kinds of synbiotics are they? 

We needed answers.

Not to mention that failing to reach a consensus on a definition invited lawsuits and loss of public trust in something that may change the digestion game for good.

In 2019, a panel of scientists on the International Scientific Association for Prebiotic and Probiotics (ISAPP) met and hashed it out.

After a decades-long drum roll, they landed on: “A mixture, comprising live microorganisms and substrate(s) selectively utilized by host microorganisms, that confers a health benefit on the host.” 

Microorganisms being both internal (gut microbes) and external (probiotics). Then, they took it a step further and split synbiotics into two categories: synergistic and complementary.

Synergistic Synbiotic: “composed of a live microorganism and a selectively utilized substrate. These components are designed to work together, with the substrate being selectively utilized by the co-administered microorganism.” 

Complementary Synbiotic: “comprises a probiotic plus a prebiotic (more than one of each can be used), working independently to achieve one or more health benefits.”

It’s worth noting that in a complementary synbiotic, both distinct parts (pro- and pre-biotic) must individually meet the requirements of their legal definitions; when those distinct parts appear in a synergistic synbiotic, it isn’t necessary to meet their legal definitions.

What Your Gut Gets

Ultimately, synbiotics are an attempt to harness the existing power of pro- and pre-biotics in a more effective way, by having their benefits lift each other up.

Although the goal is a healthy and diverse microbiome, more than one avenue must be traveled in order to arrive there.

In a complementary synbiotic, you may have the prebiotic working hard to feed positive bacteria in the microbial colony of the digestive tract. At the same time, the probiotic boosts immunity by supplying the microbes that the community desperately need. 

By testing and designing synergistic synbiotics that work together (as in, the prebiotic is ideally matched to feed or support the probiotic), we’re making digestive healthcare even more personalized.

The use-cases are broad — imagine the targeted disorders that could be remedied by inventing what amounts to medicinal cocktails for your gut!

Anything from nutrient absorption to bowel regularity can be affected by a clever combination of the two.

However, until synbiotics fall under the watchful eye of the regulation bodies, you’re essentially winging it when you buy branded synbiotics.

Your own diligence will have to suffice until enough research has been done to corroborate claims made by private companies.

Once that happens, the face of medicine may forever be turned to gaze gut-ward.

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