What’s new in Prebiotics?
By now, most people have heard of probiotics, and many have heard of PREbiotics. Prebiotics are the food source for these healthy gut bacteria. They are specific food ingredients that can survive the hostile, acidic environment of the stomach to bring needed fuel to the microbiome of the intestine. A successful prebiotic increases the volume of bifidobacteria in the colon by giving them lots of great, accessible food.
This is how we have thought of prebiotics for a long time. When we read prebiotic labels, we expect to see specific carbohydrates or fiber that come from foods like Jerusalem artichoke. But there is a famous downside to these prebiotics: gas! The bacteria consume these carbohydrates by fermentation. Fermentation creates gas, and for many people- a lot of painful bloating.
The less well-known drawback of prebiotics is that they are freely available food sources, available to good and bad bacteria alike. The majority of the bacteria consuming prebiotics will be the helpful population of bifidobacteria, but in a gut that is totally out of balance, a prebiotic might be used by bad bacteria as well, perpetuating the imbalance.
Antibiotic resistant bacteria, and possible help from a surprising source
Bacteria have been leading the headlines for years in medicine. The captivating research into the microbiome of the GI tract is revealing how critically important gut health is to overall health and wellbeing. On a less optimistic front, the battle against anti-biotic resistant bacteria is facing some tremendous obstacles. Bacteria that are resistant to modern antibiotics are spreading in the community more quickly than new medicines can be discovered.
The CDC reported over 2 million people have become ill with antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria or fungus and these invaders have caused over 23,000 deaths. Antimicrobials are being used in combinations to be more effective and hospitals are working hard to reduce the chance of catching antimicrobial resistant infections, but progress is slow. The biggest leap forward may be coming from a surprising source~ viruses.
Viruses and Bacteriophages
As damaging as bacteria are to humans, they are actually kind of an easy enemy to have. They tend to stick to one area. They themselves are a cell; they can survive on their own. They are fairly large. Most of the time, anti-bacterial agents, or combinations of antibacterial agents can kill them.
But viruses? Viruses are much trickier. Viruses are really, really tiny, making it easier for them to spread throughout the body. They are not killed by antibiotics, and they are tough to kill because they hide themselves in normal body cells.
The only way a virus can survive and reproduce is by taking over the host’s cell. They evade detection by the immune system by hiding in different cells in the body, where they take over the cell and use the part of the cell to reproduce themselves.
There is a class of viruses with a tricky name: bacteriophage. Sounds like a bacteria, doesn’t it? It helps to know that “phage” means “devour”. Bacteriophages are viruses that devour bacteria. They do this by entering the bacteria and lysing, or killing it. Different bacteriophages target different bacteria, and because viruses are quick to adapt, bacteria do not become resistant to them even as they change to become more resistant to medications.
What does this have to do with prebiotics?
As the research rolls in about how important it is to support the healthy bacteria of the GI tract, everyone is looking for the best way to do it. A great probiotic is helpful, but without support for the good bacteria, probiotics provide a temporary fix to an often long-standing problem. Feeding the base population of healthy bacteria is essential to long-term success. There are two ways to feed this strong base of healthy bacteria: providing actual food, such as inulin from Jerusalem artichokes, or by reducing the competition for food.
Since gas and bloating are often what bring people to try a prebiotic, adding product that may cause gas and bloating, even temporarily, can be hard to bear. This risk may keep some people from trying a prebiotic, even when there is a chance it could be really helpful. This dilemma, coupled with the rising occurrence of SIBO, MRSA and antibiotic resistant infections has renewed interest in bacteriophage therapies.
History of Bacteriophage therapies
Bacteriophages were used to fight bacterial infections such as Vibrio, Shigella and even dysentery before antibiotics were discovered, back in the early 1900s. Safety research had already been done on them and scientists were working on ways to produce different kinds of phages as medical treatments. Eli Lily, a major US pharmaceutical company, had 7 phage products they were producing in the 1940s, targeting bacteria such as staphylococci, streptococci, Escherichia coli, and other bacteria that still disrupt GI tracts everywhere. Interest in bacteriophages was not limited to the United States. Eastern European countries frequently administered them along with or instead of other antimicrobial therapies. However, antibiotics quickly took over the market, as they were easier to research, and bacteriophages were largely forgotten in the US— until recently.
In nature, bacteriophages are already responsible for managing bacterial populations in waterways and the food supply. Naturally occurring bacteriophages help manage Campylobacter, a bacteria found in broiler chickens and the most common cause of food poisoning. Drawing on the past research that was done around the world into the safety and efficacy of bacteriophage therapies and the newer work being done into these naturally occurring phages, cutting edge companies, such as Nutrivee, are revolutionizing prebiotics.
Who might benefit from bacteriophage Prebiotics?
For a person living with SIBO, IBS, dysbiosis or other GI conditions that already cause gas and bloating, prebiotic containing bacteriophages could be beneficial. By entering the pathogenic or bad bacterial cell and killing it, then moving on to the next cell of the same bacterial species, bacteriophages are able to reduce the bacterial imbalance in the GI tract and make more room for a healthy mix of positive bacteria to reproduce and stabilize the environment of the GI tract. This specificity could be a great help to restoring the delicate balance of a healthy gut.
 Sulakvelidze A, Alavidze Z, Morris JG. Bacteriophage Therapy. Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy. 2001;45(3):649-659. doi:10.1128/AAC.45.3.649-659.2001.
 Kropinski AM, Arutyunov D, Foss M, et al. Genome and Proteome of Campylobacter jejuni Bacteriophage NCTC 12673. Applied and Environmental Microbiology. 2011;77(23):8265-8271. doi:10.1128/AEM.05562-11.