What’s most important to know now?
Gas, heartburn and constipation are just a few of the most common digestive problems Americans suffer from today. Historically, understanding digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), leaky gut and Crohn’s disease was paltry. Even the understanding of what caused common issues such as bloating was limited.
Today, however, more and more information and products are available to help support a healthy digestive system and improve one’s microbiome. Additionally, it’s becoming more apparent that gut health affects other systems of the body, such as metabolism, immune function and mental health.
But which lifestyle changes, natural products and foods are most effective in promoting a healthy digestive system? Are changes recommended depending on the specific issue? And what’s trending in the gut health and microbiome world today?
Digestion and the Microbiome: What’s Most Important to Know Now?
Long before antacids and laxatives, individuals used digestive bitters to treat stomach and gut issues. Bitters were found in ancient Egyptian tombs and have been used for hundreds of years in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and ayurveda.
Of course, there are many options today when it comes to treating digestive issues and helping to improve the microbiome. More individuals are reaching for natural health products to help with digestive ailments or prevent them all together. Fermented foods like kombucha, a fermented tea; kimchi, a spicy Korean vegetable dish; and kefir, often made from fermented milk, have high levels of probiotics. Probiotics are understood to help improve the microbiome and support better digestion and overall better health, as mentioned in the article, “Probiotics: Versatile Bioactive Components in Promoting Human Health,” published in Medicina.
Dr. Ying-Chieh Tsai, gut-microbiome expert and chief scientist at Bened Life in California, is intrigued by new research on how probiotics affect other areas of the body. “What we’re really excited about is that there are now products on the market that not only benefit GI (gastrointestinal) function but also specific non-GI functions like neurological health,” Dr. Tsai stated. “Research and product development are exploring the influence of a healthy microbiome and specific probiotic and postbiotic strains on all body systems—immune, respiratory, cardiovascular, reproductive and musculoskeletal—via the gut. We are very excited to see more products that take a targeted approach to health from the foundation of the gut.”
Prebiotics are another area of growing interest and study. According to the Oxford Languages dictionary, prebiotics are, “a nondigestible food ingredient that promotes the growth of beneficial microorganisms in the intestines.” Prebiotics and probiotics also work well together. An article titled, “Effects of Probiotics, Prebiotics and Synbiotics on Human Health” in Nutrients stated, “Prebiotics may be used as an alternative to probiotics or as an additional support for them. However different prebiotics will stimulate the growth of different indigenous gut bacteria.”
At ADM in Missouri, Global Director of Product Marketing, Deerland, Kristin Wilhoyte said that how probiotics are produced is important to their overall effectiveness. “We’re particularly excited about the robust nature of postbiotics and spore-forming probiotics, which can retain their functionality through harsh formulation conditions that certain supplements like gummies or clusters may undergo,” said Wilhoyte. She points to the company’s product, DE111, a spore-forming probiotic, meaning it can withstand challenging processing conditions which may otherwise damage conventional probiotics. “Furthermore, research demonstrates that DE111 can germinate in the small intestine, as it can survive gastric transit and the harsh conditions of the stomach and bile salts,” Wilhoyte noted, pointing to this study published in 2021. “Solutions like DE111 are opening the door for innovative and convenient supplement formats with highly sought-after functional attributes.”**
For some individuals, taking a natural health product is the way to go. Others though, want to look at what changes can be made to diet and lifestyle first. Determining the root cause of an issue is the place that most natural practitioners begin. What’s causing a digestive issue and how are lifestyle and food choices impacting that? “I am always interested in food-as-medicine,” said Brian Keenan, ND, education manager at Ayush Herbs in Washington. “While it is true that supplementation can often out-pace fermented foods, I argue that it is still vitally important for clinicians to promote the ingestion of probiotic, fermented foods as part of a healthy approach to gut health.”
Shawn Manske, ND, is the assistant director of clinical education at Biocidin Botanicals, with headquarters in California. Mushrooms and their potential benefit to the digestive system are an area that Dr. Manske pointed out continues to grow. “While having increased in prominence over the past few years, they really took off this past year with far more consumer education around their benefits to immune function and more companies offering mushroom products of all sorts,” said Dr. Manske. “Additionally, research has shown that many of these medicinal mushrooms benefit the digestive system and the microbiome.”
Dr. Edward Griffen, senior education manager at Natural Immunogenics (Florida), stated that he’s encouraged by the influx of interest in and availability of information related to gut health now. “I think people are finally catching on that gut health equals overall good health. Probiotics and fiber are being talked about and added to all kinds of products,” he said. “Naturopathic medicine has taught for decades about the importance of gut health and the rest of the world is finally catching on.”
Improving Digestion and the Microbiome—How To
Dr. Tsai noted that he’s also interested to see how the development and study of the relationship between pre- and probiotics will continue to change over time. He explained that certain types of foods—like prebiotics—can promote specific probiotic strains, helping them thrive within the gut. In addition to pre-, pro- and postbiotics, what other natural health products or food groups can be utilized to improve one’s digestion or the health of the microbiome?
Fiber is an important and often overlooked staple, said Dr. Tsai. “Fiber can be utilized to help us improve digestion and increase absorption. But just like most things, it’s not that simple. ‘Fiber’ is not just one thing, and different types have different functions … fibers have seemingly contradictory roles: insoluble fiber generally speeds up digestion and avoids constipation, while the soluble type absorbs liquid and can help give stools additional bulk when needed, slowing their passing through the GI tract. Many digestive health products now promote the addition of fiber from all sorts of novel sources, but the amount our gut needs to actually see benefits is often far more than is in these products.”
Vicky Mak, a technical writer at ChildLife Essentials in California, stated that quick-dissolve powders are one of the newest on-the-go delivery formats that the company is particularly interested in. “During the cold season, parents want supplements that are easy to pack and take for their children, so their kids never miss a day of vitamins, minerals or probiotics throughout the school year.” Unlike conventional pills and tablets though, Mak noted, powder packets can be formulated with natural flavors that make them more palatable for kids. They’re also great for children who have difficulty swallowing pills and capsules. “Although these quick dissolve powder packets may be reminiscent of unhealthy pixie stick candies, these powder packets as dietary supplements can be carefully made with healthy ingredients that help encourage nutritional wellness in children and are often free of sugar and artificial flavors and colors,” she noted.
For Dr. Griffen, pre- and probiotics continue to be a focus. “I’ve been interested in supporting the gut microbiome for years. Pre- and probiotics have such a significant impact on the overall health and with the overuse of antibiotics, the gut health has been significantly impacted,” Dr. Griffen explained. “The bacteria in our gut is responsible for a multitude of enzymes, short chain fatty acids, neurotransmitters and helping with our amino acid metabolism … supporting gut health and this gut microbiota is vitally important to our health.”
What’s Trending in Digestion and Microbiome Natural Health Products Now?
As Dr. Manske mentioned, mushrooms are an area that is continuing to grow in popularity. This food comes to mind first for Dr. Keenan when it comes to current trends in gut health. “Because mushrooms contain prebiotic polysaccharides as well as other phytochemicals that promote health and can be consumed in many different ways from supplements to beverages,” he said. Another popular ingredient Dr. Keenan has taken note of recently is sea moss—usually referred to as Irish sea moss (Chondrus crispus). “Sea moss is popular as the newest ‘superfood’ because it is extremely nutrient dense and is high in protein for its weight,” Dr. Keenan noted. “Additionally, sea moss is relatively environmentally friendly and supports marine ecology by being farmed because it removes carbon dioxide from the air.”
The third trend that Dr. Keenan has observed is that both products and literature around the microbiome continue to flourish. He noted: “One thing that this is growing in popularity is harnessing the nuance of probiotics through using individualized testing. While these tests vary on reliability, they are certainly gaining in popularity and use.”
Postbiotics are an area of growing interest, said Dr. Manske. These have been around for a while, he noted, but are more prevalent today in society’s consciousness. “The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) defined a postbiotic as ‘a preparation of inanimate microorganisms and/or their components that confers a health benefit on the host,’” Dr. Manske said. “This definition of postbiotic requires that the whole or components of inactivated microbes be present, with or without metabolic end products.”
He believes that postbiotics are the next big trend within the digestive and microbiome health categories. “We’re already seeing a plethora of research showing the benefits of various postbiotic products. And the benefits are not just limited to the digestive tract but may also have systemic effects, making them very attractive to supplement producers,” said Dr. Manske.
Along the same pre-, pro- and postbiotic lines, Mak said that she’s interested in an emerging trend: combining probiotics and prebiotics to form a new category called synbiotics. “There are two types of synbiotics: complementary synbiotics and synergistic synbiotics,” she explained.
According to ISAPP, complementary synbiotics are defined as a mixture of probiotics and prebiotics while synergistic synbiotics are defined as a combination of a selectively utilized substrate and a live microbe chosen for its ability to deliver a health effect, Mak said. “The field of synergistic synbiotics allows for greater product innovation since these products can include, not only a combination of prebiotics and probiotics but also botanical and whole food ingredients,” said Mak. “Companies can replace prebiotics with these botanical and whole food ingredients that consumers easily recognize while still ensuring that these ingredients work synergistically with the accompanying probiotic.”
Likewise, Mak noted that “synergistic synbiotics opens a new path forward for companies and consumers to utilize biotics in a way that optimizes a microbe’s ability to deliver health benefits for the individual,” she said. “Digestive health products that offer these synbiotics include dairy products, baked goods and cereal products, beverages, and supplements.”
For Dr. Griffen, “One of the things I am most excited about in the digestive health market right now is the combination of aloe vera juice and Bio-Active Silver Hydrosol to improve the healing and support the biodiversity of the gut microbiome.” He recommends combining three doses of one ounce of Bio-Active Silver Hydrosol and one ounce of aloe vera juice, taken 30 to 45 minutes before the evening meal along with a probiotic containing at least 50 billion CFUs. Doing so, he said, can support overall gut health.
Director of Marketing at NBPure in Arizona, RJ Carvis, is excited about a couple of things in the digestive and microbiome health arena. “We have taken a focus on two specific areas: gut-specific probiotics that help with promoting regularity (Poobiotics) and fiber done right. When I say that I mean a mix of soluble and insoluble fiber to really give your body, and gut what it needs.” NBPure has a Daily Multi-Fiber product that comes in coconut lime flavor or savory mocha.
What’s the Outlook for Digestion and Microbiome Health Products?
Outlook for the digestion and microbiome market is good, said Dr. Tsai. “The market continues to grow, which is supporting the marketing of specialized strains for specific indications/benefits, rather than only ‘general’ strains for ‘overall’ GI benefits,” he stated. “Consumers are willing to pay more for specialty probiotic products, both supplements, and medical probiotics. While the demand for and acceptance of probiotics and related products is not yet as widespread in the U.S. as in the mature Asian market, it is moving in that direction,” Dr. Tsai explained.
Mak concurs, citing the following market forecast. “The global market for probiotics supplements was valued at $58.17 billion in 2022 and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 7.4 percent in the next seven years,” she stated. Additionally, she noted, the global prebiotics market size is expected to register a revenue CAGR of 11.3 percent. There is still room for continued growth though, as Mak believes that most consumers are noticeably less familiar with prebiotics than probiotics. It’s important to not overlook postbiotics either. “The global postbiotics market was valued at $9.5 million (U.S.) in 2022,” said Mak, “and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 11.5 percent.” While postbiotics are less familiar to the general public than either pre or probiotics, Mak believes that with continued research and awareness, postbiotics too, have room to grow in the digestive health marketplace.
Wilhoyte noted, “Today’s consumers are increasingly focused on supporting their overall health and wellness.” She stated that globally, 64 percent of consumers describe their approach to health as proactive, pointing to the “FMCG Gurus, Top Trends for 2023” study. “This attitude aligns with consumers’ growing awareness of the role the gut microbiome plays in their everyday lives,” said Wilhoyte. “In fact, proprietary ADM research shows that 58 percent of global consumers perceive a connection between the function of bacteria in the gut to wider aspects of well-being.”
Still, natural practitioners and their patients need to be more mindful than ever of the supplements and products for digestion and the microbiome, said Carvis. “The market is hot, and that can be a good and a bad thing. There are lots of trendy ‘gut focused’ products out there that claim to do one thing, but the ingredients and quality say another,” Carvis said. “It’s definitely prudent to do your research on brands and ingredients to make sure you are getting a product that is not only efficacious but right for you personally.”
Another important consideration for all natural practitioners is considering generational needs, said Wilhoyte, which impact consumer behavior. “For example, Baby Boomers are most likely to seek out digestive support through supplement usage, with 55 percent of North American Baby Boomers stating that they would be willing to spend more if a supplement aided their digestive health.
“On the flip side,” Wilhoyte noted, “priorities for Generation X, Millennials and Generation Z include sleeping patterns, mental well-being, and immune function, respectively, all of which may be addressed by gut microbiome-supporting solutions. Interest in different format types also shifts depending on generation.” Likewise, the delivery method of various supplements must be appropriate for the generation it serves. “While ‘traditional’ supplement formats like tablets and capsules are still capturing attention across age groups, Baby Boomers and Gen X are much more likely to gravitate toward them,” said Wilhoyte. “Millennials and Gen Z, on the other hand, are more open to jellies, gummies and single serve shots.” Wilhoyte gathered this data from the “FMCG Gurus, Nutritional Supplement Trends by Cohort – North America, 2021” publication.
So, what’s the outlook for digestion and the microbiome when it comes to natural health products? On the whole, positive.
While historically, information surrounding digestive health and the microbiome was scarce—and sometimes even dangerous—this area of study continues to garner more interest. Both new and tried-and-true products in this market offer potential help to those who suffer from digestive distress or simply want to be proactive with their gut health. Medical professionals and individuals alike can look forward to increased knowledge and awareness about digestion and the microbiome in the months and years to come.
**Local regulations must be reviewed to confirm permissibility of ingredients for each food category.
Healthy Take Aways
• Statistics via GI Alliance show that 20 million Americans suffer from digestive issues. These problems are one of the leading causes of disability in the workplace.
• Pre, pro- and postbiotics all play important roles in potentially strengthening the microbiome.
• The market for digestive health products continues to flourish. It’s estimated it will grow to $72,953 million (U.S.) by 2030. It is expected to have a CAGR growth rate of 7.6 percent between 2022 to 2030, according to Global Newswire data.
• Gut health affects other systems in the body, such as the immune system, kidneys and even the heart. More studies are being done to explore the links between these and other systems—and the complex digestive system further.
For More Information:
Ayush Herbs Inc., www.ayush.com
Bened Life, www.benedlife.com
Biocidin Botanicals, www.biocidin.com
ChildLife Essentials, www.childlifenutrition.com
Natural Immunogenics, www.argentyn23.com