Andrea Wien is a freelance writer and certified nutrition therapist. Follow her on Instagram @dreeats.
Our bets are everyone you know is taking a probiotic. These supplements — made up of different beneficial strains of the bacteria and yeast that support a healthy gut — are a part of a health regimen that address the health of your gut microbiome to promote everything from better digestive health to better sleep and even mood improvement.
One of the latest players in the probiotic supplement space are spore probiotics. We’re diving into what makes spore probiotics different and why they’re the latest topic of discussion in the gut health community.
The Main Types of Probiotic Supplements
Probiotics are defined as the live bacteria and yeast that supports the health of your gut. Along with fungi (a part of the mycobiome) they help to promote the healthy function of the gut.
To understand how spore probiotics are different, it’s important to discuss the three main types of probiotic supplements that exist, how they’re produced, and the benefits and challenges they offer.
Lactic acid bacteria probiotics
In traditional forms of lactic acid probiotics, well-researched gut bacteria (that are already a part of a healthy microbiome) are encapsulated. Lactic acid probiotics include strains you may have heard about, such as bifidobacterium and lactobacillus, which is the most common strain found in fermented foods like yogurt.
“These are bacteria that produce lactic acid by eating lactose, sugar, and carbohydrates. They eat these foods through a process of fermentation, which lowers the pH of the gut and, therefore, limits the growth of pathogens and Candida,” says Sophie Bibbs, a digestive health coach that helps women struggling with IBS and uncomfortable digestive problems.
The challenge with lactic acid strains of probiotics is that the live bacteria they contain are highly sensitive to light and heat. Under these conditions, they die easily. While manufacturers have gone to great precautions to prevent this death before you receive a bottle (refrigeration and dark glass, for example), the stomach acid of your stomach may kill many of these probiotic bugs before they have a chance to reach their target location in your intestines.
Lactic acid bacteria are also transient, meaning they don’t hang around in the gut after they’re consumed. Instead, they move through quickly, doing their work as they pass by.
A second class of probiotics are soil-based probiotics, or SBOs. These are bacteria that are naturally found in the dirt, not in the human body. Most have evolved over thousands of years to develop a hard “shell” around them so they’re able to withstand the demands of Mother Nature.
“SBOs enrich the soil so that plants and food have the nutrients to grow well,” says Bibbs. “These bacteria have always been on our food, so we would naturally consume them and they’d help enhance our immune system.”
Today, few of us are harvesting our own food from the ground and even fewer are eating foods without washing away the dirt. This distance and food cleanliness has decimated the number of soil-based probiotics we ingest. Proponents of soil-based probiotics point to this as one of the main reasons we’re experiencing such collective digestive distress.
And in fact, certain strains of SBOs have been found to be highly effective in balancing GI issues, improving regularity and stimulating the immune system. Some soil-based probiotics are transitory while others have the ability to colonize.
The third class of probiotics are spore probiotics. “It’s important to understand that spore-forming probiotics can be a type of soil-based probiotic, meaning that some spore-forming bacteria are from the soil,” says Sophie. “This is why only some soil-based bacteria have the ability to colonize the gut, whereas all spore-forming probiotics have it. There is no crossover with lactic acid probiotics.”
Like soil-based probiotics, spore probiotics are highly resistant to harsh conditions, which means they can survive and grow in any environment.
“They can even resist antibiotics, whereas other types will likely be killed by antibiotics. This means they are much more likely to stay and colonize the gut, living there and helping to sweep out bad bacteria,” says Sophie. “They can also remain dormant in the gut for a long time, and then revive themselves when nutrients are present.”
What to know about spore probiotics.
This resiliency and colonization sounds like a good thing, but it’s one of the reasons that critics of spore probiotics are hesitant to recommend them.
Our ancestors were eating relatively small amounts of spore probiotics and had robust microbiomes, but they weren’t supplementing them at the mega-doses we find in current day formulations. This doesn’t mean that spore probiotics aren’t useful — just that we need to be careful about how we’re taking them.
There is concern that spore probiotics can be highly opportunistic, especially in the guts of people who are immunocompromised. Critics say that when our microbiome isn’t already strong and thriving, introducing foreign strains that aren’t transient and stick around for a long time can cause serious issues.
The solution is thoughtful dosage from suppliers with reputable strains. As a result the dosage of spore probiotics tend to be much smaller as a result.
If you do want to experiment with spore probiotics, it’s helpful to speak to a gut health specialist or stick to the strains of bacillus coagulans, bacillus subtilis and bacillus clausii that have been widely studied. These strains appear to be safe and well-tolerated with no adverse effects in most humans. It’s also advisable to take them with food, as the food provides nutrients to move them from dormancy to living.