The terminology explained
Scientists (especially biologists) like to be clever with how they name things (usually with lots of Latin), and lots of amalgamations of different words to make another that means something new and completely unpronounceable.
Everyone knows “antibiotics” are the medications you take to treat an infection, if we split this word in two we have “anti” and “biotics”; “biotics” basically just refers to living things, in this instance it is referring to microbes, and with “anti” we know that this medication is used to work against the microbes to slow their growth or kill them (the words for these are bacteriostatic and bactericidal, and I’m sure you can work out how those are put together).
Antibiotics typically work against a certain type of bacteria, but this is very broad and by taking antibiotics you kill a lot of other microbes besides the one that is giving you grief. This causes dysbiosis (“dys” as in dysregulated, and “biosis” again as in living things) and means your gut microbiome (“micro” as in microorganisms, and “biome” as in a wider collection or ecosystem of living things) can’t function as it should and can give you a whole new set of problems.
There are other “biotics” words that as both a microbiologist and a cheesemaker I much prefer. We have probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics, postbiotics, and parabiotics, all of which are intended to treat dysbiosis and support healthy function of the gut microbiome.
“Probiotics”, the best known of the good biotics, refers to microbes that are consumed as live organisms which interact with your existing gut microbiome to provide health benefits for you (the microbes we set to work – the “pro”fessionals!) ; these are found in yogurts and other fermented foods such as kefir, cheese, kimchi etc as well as concentrated in capsule form.
Probiotics tend to be Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, or Streptococcus species, but encapsulate a wide range of microbes. “Prebiotics”, which act as food for the probiotics to consume and can enhance the action of those and other beneficial microbes that already exist in your gut; dietary fibre makes up most of the prebiotics that we know of, and you can find them naturally in bananas, onions, oats among others, as well as being able to find them supplemented into other foods.
“Synbiotics” refers to a combination of probiotics and prebiotics (referring to the “synergy” of the two together on your microbes) that together work to enhance the beneficial effects of either alone; one study found that by supplementing probiotics with inulin, a common prebiotic, you can actually reduce colorectal cancers (1). “Postbiotics” and “parabiotics” both refer to the leftovers when a microbe dies that can confer health benefits; postbiotics means the compounds that are released from dead cells (“postbiotic” – after life?), and parabiotics are the dead cells themselves that can still interact with other microbes and the immune system (sometimes called ghost probiotics, so “para” as in paranormal!) make the final members of the super group, they are a relatively new concept and so information is still somewhat limited, but it seems they can confer many of the benefits that probiotics can.
The gut microbiome is linked to the function of so many other parts of the body, from cardiovascular diseases to mental health problems, as well as of course gut health, it is a crucial cog in the machine of the human body. It therefore tracks that by using “good biotics” to enhance the function of the gut microbiome we can improve overall health. As mentioned previously, synbiotics are even being used for cancer treatment with promising results, and it has been shown that probiotics can improve anxiety and depression (2).
But what do the probiotics actually do in the gut and how does this bring about such improvements?
The microbes that we know as probiotics help to digest the food we eat; during the digestion of fats, you get short chain fatty acids, because these are acidic this lowers the pH in the gut which makes the conditions such that only a selection of microbes can continue to grow (in theory, the good ones!), some can also produce their own antimicrobial compounds against pathogenic bacteria (3,4).
Another important role of probiotics is the modulation of the immune system by increasing the production of white blood cells and by regulating the production of immune chemicals (cytokines) (5). Probiotics also help the immune system by enforcing the gut cell wall and by altering mucus secretion (6). All of this together results in you being stronger and more able to fight disease or illness when it takes hold, and can mean that you are less likely to get ill in the first place.
Furthermore, they have been shown to treat diabetes by reducing fasting blood glucose, which also reduces your cardiovascular risk (7). Taking prebiotics does similar things to your gut microbiota, but by enhancing the growth of bacteria that we might consider to be probiotic already living in your gut, and by taking both pre and probiotics together as synbiotics you increase their power further. Both postbiotics and parabiotics have been shown to interact with and stimulate the immune system, much in the way that probiotics do, with some antioxidant properties, inhibitory effects on cancer cells, and antimicrobial activity against disease-causing microbes (8).
Kick start your gut into shape with our organic kefir
Before going out and buying all the yogurt you can eat to create the healthiest version of yourself, it’s worth thinking about what form of probiotics you want to go for. Different species of probiotics all work slightly differently by the production of different short chain fatty acids, these interact differently with the rest of the gut microbes and the gut wall. Variety is therefore a good thing, and typically yogurt or other supermarket health drinks just contain a couple of species of probiotic, whereas many fermented foods such as kimchi, kombucha, and of course kefir, contains a whole host of different probiotics. They are therefore thought to be more beneficial.
Furthermore, if you do buy yogurt, do check that it does contain the probiotic cultures, as many are pasteurised after production. So, in the wake of all the wonderful Christmas celebrations I hope you have had, if you’re feeling a bit bloated and sluggish, head over to the Cheese Shed and pick up some kefir to kick your gut into shape!
1. Eslami M, Yousefi B, Kokhaei P, Hemati M, Nejad ZR, Arabkari V, et al. Importance of probiotics in the prevention and treatment of colorectal cancer. J Cell Physiol [Internet]. 2019 Oct 1 [cited 2022 Dec 21];234(10):17127–43. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30912128/
2. McKean J, Naug H, Nikbakht E, Amiet B, Colson N. Probiotics and Subclinical Psychological Symptoms in Healthy Participants: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. J Altern Complement Med [Internet]. 2017 Apr 1 [cited 2022 Dec 21];23(4):249–58. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27841940/
3. Markowiak-Kopeć P, Śliżewska K. The Effect of Probiotics on the Production of Short-Chain Fatty Acids by Human Intestinal Microbiome. Nutrients [Internet]. 2020 Apr 1 [cited 2022 Dec 22];12(4). Available from: /pmc/articles/PMC7230973/
4. Perez RH, Zendo T, Sonomoto K. Multiple bacteriocin production in lactic acid bacteria. J Biosci Bioeng [Internet]. 2022 Oct 1 [cited 2022 Dec 22];134(4):277–87. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35927130/
5. Zhang C xing, Wang H yu, Chen T xin. Interactions between Intestinal Microflora/Probiotics and the Immune System. Biomed Res Int [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2022 Dec 22];2019. Available from: /pmc/articles/PMC6886316/
6. La Fata G, Weber P, Mohajeri MH. Probiotics and the Gut Immune System: Indirect Regulation. Probiotics Antimicrob Proteins [Internet]. 2018 Mar 1 [cited 2022 Dec 22];10(1):11. Available from: /pmc/articles/PMC5801397/
7. Salgaço MK, Oliveira LGS, Costa GN, Bianchi F, Sivieri K. Relationship between gut microbiota, probiotics, and type 2 diabetes mellitus. Appl Microbiol Biotechnol [Internet]. 2019 Dec 1