Symbiotic Synbiotics: What the Heck?
R. H. Bennett Ph.D., Applied Life Sciences
NEWS FLASH: New HATS Probiotics enhanced by specialized Prebiotics become symbiotic synbiotics.
Confused? Of course, you are. Mastering a science is 99% getting the vocabulary straight. So along we come with probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics, and symbiotics. We need to do a far better job of education. Allow me to try.
Well, take the easy one first. Dietary supplement probiotics are merely living bacteria we ingest intentionally. When we do, we are attempting to rejuvenate and rebalance our gut microbiome. Our microbiome is a vast microbial ecosystem. Why does it need help? As we age and eat the Western Diet, our MB loses diversity, and some bacterial populations shrink and even go extinct. We seek great diversity in the microbiome, for there like everywhere else, “in diversity is stability”(1).
The first criterion for a probiotic is that they do no harm. In fact of the millions of bacteria we consume every day, just in the process of living, 99.99% bacteria we ingest are harmless. But that does not make them a probiotic. They must meet the next criteria, and that is they must do some good us. In so doing good they are for life or probios and thus a probiotic. So far so good?
Some probiotics like those found in cultured foods do some good as they traverse the bowel. However, most do not set up camp, and they do not and cannot reproduce. They are homeless and transients. Thus they must regularly be consumed to do any good. But wait! Some companies undue the good by making the product taste like dessert by adding a big sugar load and then the product becomes a “not- so- probiotic” in that the sugar will promote the less desirable microbes in the gut, thus reducing diversity. Scientifically this makes little sense, then again science and marketing can be like oil and water.
The probiotics that do the most good are the most for life; we call HATS.
Human-Adapted Targeted Symbiotics
Human- Adapted means these bacteria evolved with us for millennia that make their home in our bodies and the reproduce and colonize readily. As we have said before, they were first isolated from the human body. Fortunately, they can be grown commercially and still retain their HATS.
Targeted implies they have specific roles and functions that target essential body systems and functions like metabolism, immunity and gut integrity. Some food culture bacteria have general non-specific actions like increasing the acidity of the gut contents, but most probiotics including HATS probiotics do that too.
Symbiotics is a bit trickier to explain, but let’s start easy. The term comes from symbiosis. It implies a particular kind of relationship between two or more different organisms.
A vivid example we use is that of corals and tiny fish. The corals benefit the fish by providing shelter, protection, and habitat for other little critters that are food for the small fish. We have not achieved symbiosis yet. The little fishes excrete nitrogen in their waste, which in turn nourishes the unique organism that grows on and sustains the coral. These are microscopic organisms are called Zooxanthellae. They are photosynthetic and feed the coral and often are the vivid colors of healthy coral. This ecological symbiosis is a three-way relationship where all members give and take mutually.
Great, you say? How does symbiosis work for HATS probiotics? When we selected the strains for a product, the decision was heavily influenced by nature. That is the Lactobacilli, and the Bifidobacteria get inoculated into the newborn on the day of birth.
That fact was pretty convincing in and of itself, but not proof of symbiosis. Sometimes what nature does defies our understanding, but now with the science burgeoning from the Human Microbiome Project, we learn the products of the metabolism of the lactobacilli benefit the Bifidobacteria which in turn make products that benefit the colon cells themselves. In this symbiosis, the bacteria cooperate and reciprocate. Must be love.
Another interesting symbiotic relationship occurs when expecting moms are given a probiotic containing Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG. This microbe supports the Bifidobacteria populations in the gut, such that they are more numerous and better able to colonize the baby at birth (2). Similar improvements with the Bifidobacteria occurred in young adults when supplemented with L. rhamnosus (3).
Symbiotic probiotics are HATS that support each other. Few if any probiotic manufactures are aware of this vital microbe-to-microbe symbiosis. If your probiotic blend has B. infantis and L. rhamnosus, there is a good chance they are symbiotic.
Prebiotics are not living things. They are complex carbohydrates that feed the probios. We humans cannot digest these unique carbohydrates. However, the enzymes of the bacteria metabolize them for energy and the production of beneficial things like fatty acids that our colon cells use for energy and more.
Prebiotics work best for certain probiotics. A particular blend of prebiotics is used to promote selected probiotics (4). Prebiotics are soluble fiber and come from plants of all kinds. One type of prebiotic comes from animals in the colostrum provided to the newborn on the day of birth. The milk also contains this prebiotic but at a lesser amount. However, the newborn consumes milk exclusively for the first months of life to promote the good work of the probios.
OK, what is a Synbiotic?
Synbiotic is merely a combination of a probiotic with a prebiotic. Synbiosis implies synergy. Thus when a probiotic is combined with the right prebiotic is grows better, faster and does more good work. Synergy is simplistically suggested like this. One part probiotic and one part prebiotic yield, not two parts good work but three or more. The process is synergistic. That synbiosis can also be symbiotic. Feed the good bacteria so that they can work better mutually.
Hopefully, this little dissertation added useful understanding of the probiotic vocabulary. As you read the volumes of material on the internet keep these distinctions in mind.
1. Thibaut LM, Connolly SR, He F. Understanding diversity–stability relationships: towards a unified model of portfolio effects. Ecology Letters. 2013;16(2):140-150. doi:10.1111/ele.12019.
2. Gueimonde, Miguel, et al. "Effect of maternal consumption of lactobacillus GG on transfer and establishment of fecal bifidobacterial microbiota in neonates." Journal of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition 42.2 (2006): 166-170.
3. Benno Y, He F, Hosoda M, et al. Effect of Lactobacillus GG yogurt on human intestinal microecology in Japanese subjects. Nutr Today 1996;31(suppl. 1):9S-11S.
4. Candela, Marco, et al. "Functional intestinal microbiome, new frontiers in prebiotic design." International journal of food microbiology 140.2-3 (2010): 93-101.