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Do You Take Probiotics for Weight Loss? There’s a New Category You Need to Know About

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Watch for health supplements advertising synbiotics on their packaging.

Discover a new category of gut health supplement that you need to know exactly what it is before deciding on that next weight loss supplement.

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Advertisements for weight loss supplements often include products that focus on your gut health. Among these are yogurts and diet pills that make weight loss claims based on scattered evidence of some studies that suggest by changing the microorganisms in your digestive tract, that one of the benefits may be weight loss.

In particular, supplements that are labeled as containing either probiotics, prebiotics, or both.

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What are probiotics?

Essentially, probiotics are live microorganisms—such as specific strains of bacteria referred to as “good bacteria”—that are found to have good digestive and other health benefits when consumed. Typically you will find them listed on yogurt and other fermented foods containers, as well as many dietary supplement products.The most common microorganisms are bacteria that belong to two species called Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.

These bacteria help you digest your food, destroy disease-causing cells, and/or produce vitamins as well as help nutrients absorb through your digestive tract and into your bloodstream through which they will eventually make it to many of your body’s cells.

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What are Prebiotics?

Prebiotics are the non-digestible food components from your meals that selectively stimulate the growth or activity of desirable microorganisms. In other words, prebiotics support probiotics.

A New Category of Pre- and Probiotics: Synbiotics

According to a news report from the University of Illinois, the next wave of gut-health supplements destined to line the shelves are known as “Synbiotics.” Synbiotics basically are supplements that combine both probiotics and prebiotics together in one package, pill or food product.

However, because the term “Synbiotics” is relatively new, researchers see a need to redefine the term and develop guidelines on the scientific investigation of these prebiotic/probiotic combo supplements. As such, a new consensus report was recently published in the journal Nature Reviews: Gastroenterology & Hepatology, to serve as the definitive reference in the development of new synbiotic products.

“Synbiotics are starting to gain traction in the marketplace, but there’s a lot of confusion around the term, even among scientists,” says Kelly Swanson, consensus panel chair and professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at Illinois. “The panel’s main goal was to clarify what synbiotics are and provide guidance for future research and innovation.”

The problem with the term is that the usage risks being vague and therefore open to misinterpretation and misuse that could sway consumers into buying into products that may or may not provide real health benefits—especially in an industry where the U.S. Food and Drug Administration holds little control or regulation over what is advertised and sold.

“This consensus statement provides guidance for different stakeholders, including scientists in academia and industry, consumers, and even journalists. We want to remind each group that these terms should be used consistently, avoiding sensationalizing or overstating health claims,” says Hannah Holscher, panel member and assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Illinois.

The New Definition of Synbiotics

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The consensus reports’ updated definition for synbiotics is that it is “a mixture comprising live microorganisms and substrate(s) selectively utilized by host microorganisms that confers a health benefit on the host.”

So, where does this leave the ol’ prebiotics and probiotics labeling? What the definition does is that it adds specifics to the prebiotic/probiotic combo in that together the two components must show through research that the two work together resulting in a health benefit that can be quantitatively analyzed and proven.

Changing to a more-focused terminology using “synbiotics” allows scientists to more precisely communicate their research and hold it to specific criteria. The difference then, is that with respect to the usage of “prebiotic” and “probiotic,” is that products can claim to have both, but with the caveat and understanding that together they might have separate effects on the gut biome.

According to the University of Illinois news, the authors of the consensus report provide an example where, “… a prebiotic might aid in digestive health while a probiotic may boost immunity after a flu vaccine. As long as they still provide those benefits in the host, they can be considered complementary synbiotics.” But therefore, not necessarily qualify as a synbiotic.

While the distinctions may seem to be nit-picking, to the public this is really quite important in that just because a probiotic and a prebiotic may have separate health benefits while in the gut; together, they could possibly be at odds with each other and could be detrimental to health.

“The key there is testing. Even if the pre- and probiotics work separately, there could be some antagonism when put together. So really, they need be tested together in the target animal or human. We don’t want companies just randomly throwing things together,” Swanson says.

“Just because there's a pre-, pro-, or synbiotic on the market, that doesn’t mean they’ll work across the board from infants to adults to geriatrics, from heart disease to gastrointestinal health. They're all really there for a specific purpose,” Swanson added.

The researchers recommend that before plunging into the new supplements such as those that will be expected to be making claims of being “synbiotics,” that consumers need to consult with their physician in choosing the right product for their specific needs.

Is There a Synbiotic for Weight Loss?

Recent research is ongoing focusing on the possibility of correcting obesity-induced disruption of gut microbiota using synbiotics that could have an impact on weight management.

A new study published in the journal Nutrients reports that a, “…placebo-controlled intervention clinical trial was performed to evaluate the effects of a synbiotic supplement on the composition, richness and diversity of gut microbiota and associations of microbial species with body composition parameters and biomarkers of obesity in human subjects participating in a weight loss program.”

What the study found was that while the synbiotic treatments did not lead directly to weight loss, what it did do was improve the participants’ human gut microbiota by increasing the abundance of potentially beneficial microbial species, and was associated with decreased blood glucose levels—important components of weight management and obesity.

It should be noted that the study was small; and therefore, bears repeated ongoing efforts to determine whether synbiotics can actually lead to weight loss or not. Future reports will be updated regularly on this type of research.

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with an eye on the latest news, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on what you need to know for healthier living. For continual updates about health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image Source: Photo by Mercy on Unsplash

References:

Global Gut Health Experts Guide Growth of Synbiotics” University of Illinois News, 24 August 2020.

Effects of Synbiotic Supplement on Human Gut Microbiota, Body Composition and Weight Loss in Obesity” Sergeev IN, Aljutaily T, Walton G, Huarte E.; Nutrients, 2020;12 (1): 222. Published 2020 Jan 15.

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