Prebiotics, Probiotics, and the Microbiome

Prebiotics, Probiotics, and the Microbiome

The gastrointestinal tract is an extremely complex environment and is home to trillions of microbes (bacteria and fungi). Among these trillions of microbes, researchers estimate there are probably 1,000 different types of bacteria in the human colon. Animal researchers think this is probably the same in cats and dogs. These bacteria are called probiotics and co-exist to maintain a symbiotic relationship; that is, they live together in delightful harmony and help each other fend off foreign invaders that may upset its balance. The microbiome, then, is the intestinal ecosystem that encompasses all these microscopic organisms. The entire community of different bacteria in one’s microbiome is called “flora”. Each person and animal have their own unique microbiomes, so everyone’s gut flora will be different. An individual’s gut flora is influenced by many factors, including nutrition, medication use, whether you were breast-fed or bottle-fed, and even where you live geographically! A healthy microbiome is essential to good health. In fact, a healthy microbiome allows you to digest meals and make use of all the nutrients you consume. In addition, gut microbes play a pertinent role in maintaining your immune system, metabolism, and even neurological function. Researchers are also currently researching gut flora’s part in depression and anxiety because of bacteria’s role in neurotransmitter function! As you can see, the microbiome is an extremely important system that affects many facets of the body. So, what happens when one’s microbiome is unhealthy? This condition is known as dysbiosis, which means the individual has undergone a change in their gut flora, resulting in negative effects, the most common being diarrhea and other digestive issues. How do we know whether there is a dysbiosis in the gut? Any condition that causes a change in the internal acidity of the body will cause a change in gut flora. Fluctuations in acidity happen due to an enormous variety of reasons, among the most common are: stress, nutrition, and using antibiotics, antacids, and certain classes of anti-inflammatories. Without a healthy microbiome, we may develop a wide variety of different illnesses. So how can we maintain a healthy microbiome in our pets? Researchers know there are two main parts to this equation: prebiotics and probiotics.

Prebiotics provide nutritional support for the microbiome and help set the stage for probiotic development. Prebiotics are made of good old fiber, which, once in the gastrointestinal tract, will ferment. This fermentation process encourages bacteria to thrive and proliferate. Though fiber isn’t absorbed into the gastrointestinal tract, fiber basically acts as food for the bacteria and helps to maintain a healthy microbiome. So, if we just include a lot more fiber into our pets’ diets, they will be healthier, right? Not necessarily. Research has shown that to reap the benefits of the prebiotics in fiber, our furry family members would need to eat a lot of it. In fact, it would be almost impossible to consume enough fiber to do much of anything! Synthetically, the most optimal parts of fibers can be extracted (including polyphenols, fructooligosaccharides, mannooligosaccharides, etc.) and condensed into consumable forms that can be ingested daily. This method has proven to be much more effective in recent studies. Probiotic supplementation has also confounded scientists. Although laboratory cultivated probiotics can be consumed, studies aren’t sure which colonies are the most helpful and how to keep digestive acids from killing off the bacteria before they make it to the colon. Because of the uniqueness of each person, cat, and dog’s microbiome, some probiotics seem to shed from the gut without adhering to the colon. Of course, in these cases, the bacteria don’t have a chance to benefit the gut in any way and may even cause adverse gastrointestinal reactions, like gas, bloating, and diarrhea. As you can see, science still has a long way to go before we understand exactly how the gut works, especially because most studies have been conducted in the human world. As continuous research is done, we will keep you up to date on this very exciting topic.

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