The future of probiotics could be highly personalised, according to researchers looking at the effects of specific probiotic strains on gut bacteria and health outcomes.
Interest in probiotics is on the rise on the back of growing understanding about how the microbiome affects all aspects of health. Gut health and immunity remain the top applications for probiotic products, but other potential benefits are emerging, including for skin, heart and brain health.
However, a lack of uniform effect has been a stumbling block for probiotics. That is, they do not affect every person in the same way, so making any kind of claim about their health effects can be problematic. But researchers have been looking at how certain strains affect existing bacteria in the gut and, little by little, this investigation is bringing greater understanding of how probiotics affect an individual depending on their specific microbiome.
Companies like Chr Hansen and Yakult have invested heavily in research to examine the different possible effects of their probiotic strains on particular health outcomes, but combining this with personal data on bacterial diversity could lead to more targeted strains, forms and dosages. A number of testing companies have sprung up in recent years to allow people to get a picture of their microbiome and, theoretically at least, this information then could be combined with data on how particular probiotics work.
The concept is still in its early days, but already has been tested in the context of sports nutrition and cancer treatments, for example. The US National Cancer Institute has highlighted a group of studies suggesting that a person’s gut bacteria composition could affect how well they respond to certain immunotherapies, potentially paving the way for personalised, more effective cancer treatments. In addition, the EPMA Journal has featured studies suggesting that personalised probiotics could be used to improve certain aspects of mental health, as well as diabetes and inflammatory diseases, by influencing gut composition.
Researchers and probiotic suppliers certainly recognise the potential, but despite a large amount of existing, quantifiable data on the microbiome and genetics, most of it still lacks context. In the coming years, those working in the field hope to build that context by gathering data beyond small study populations.
Probiotics currently occupy a privileged position, as consumers’ interest in gut health is riding a new high. But the litmus test for any functional food ingredient is whether it works, and for a product with notoriously variable effects from person to person, capitalising on the personalised benefits of specific probiotic strains looks particularly tantalising.