Probiotics & Prebiotics – Microbiome Background

As requested by CRIS readership, we’re launching a new series looking at probiotics and prebiotics. This post will provide some background to help us understand how probiotics and prebiotics can impact our health.

What are probiotics and prebiotics? 

Probiotics and prebiotics can be foods, ingredients, supplements, products, and more that contain or support microorganisms, most often beneficial that may impact our microbiome, impacting our overall health (1).

What is the human microbiome?

The human microbiome consists of microorganisms including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and archaea living within or on our body, often in a mutualistic or symbiotic relationship, meaning the microorganisms benefit our health in some way. In return, our body keeps the microorganisms alive (1,2).

There are trillions of organisms living in and on our bodies, helping to support our health. We each have a unique combination of microbiota (the microbes that make up the microbiome) to support our systems (1). 

Each person’s microbiome will consist of beneficial and potentially harmful microbiota. The potentially harmful microbes (known as pathogens) present in our system typically do not threaten our health or our microbiome balance unless an illness, diet, or medication (like antibiotics) disrupts our system. Any significant disruption can cause the beneficial microbiota to die, leaving more harmful pathogens to thrive (1).

Where do we find microbiota?

Our microbiome typically refers to all the systems of microbiota found throughout and on our body.

Our gut contains the largest and arguably most impactful microbiota system. But, we still find microbiota on our skin, in our mouths, and in other mucus membranes. All of these together make up our microbiome. 

What is gut health? 

Healthy gut microbiota is critical to maintaining many of our bodily systems, including supporting our immune system, metabolism, and serving as a protective barrier (1).

The microbiota plays a vital role in the digestion and absorption of food, including forming key vitamins. Without microbiota support, we cannot synthesize specific vitamins and amino acids needed for our body to function optimally. Beneficial microbiota also keeps our immune system healthy, helping it break down potentially harmful compounds (1,2).

If our gut microbiota are overwhelmed by harmful pathogens, we experience dysbiosis, an imbalance of the beneficial and harmful microbes in the microbiotal system. If dysbiosis occurs, we can experience or exasperate many conditions from something as inconvenient as an upset stomach to more severe conditions like bowel disease, obesity, cancer, and autism symptoms (1,2).

Our gut health is vital in supporting our overall health. 

Where else does microbiota live? 

Beneficial microbiota are not limited to our gut, although we are most familiar with probiotics and prebiotics designed to impact our gut health.

Beneficial microbiota can be found throughout and all over our body. For example, our armpits have microbiotal systems to break down perspiration, which in turn can cause unpleasant odors. In a prior blog, we even discussed the different deodorants containing probiotic and prebiotic ingredients designed to alter our scent.

Our microbiome helps keep our body, not just our gut, in healthy homeostasis.

How do we build our microbiome?

When we are born, we immediately start developing our microbiotal systems based on how we were born, how we’re fed as infants, what we eat as we grow, and our stage of development (1).

As we grow and age, our genes, diet, hygiene, environment, medication use, and more play a role in forming our microbiota systems. We are each individual, so our microbiomes are individual to each of us. There will not be one solution or perfect microbiome that supports all people (1,2,3).

What does this have to do with probiotics and prebiotics?

Probiotic and prebiotic products are designed to alter our microbiota. It’s essential to understand the function of our microbiome before we talk about the ways in which we can change our microbiome. 

The good news.

Now that we have a little background, in our next post, we’ll look at foods, beverages, and ingredients that contain probiotics and prebiotics and how these may impact our overall health

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