Synbiotics are a combination of prebiotics and probiotics1-2. Whilst it can be easy to confuse the two, they in fact have very distinct functions.
Prebiotics are a non-digestible food ingredient that stimulate the growth or activity of beneficial gut bacteria3. A probiotic on the other hand, is a type of beneficial bacteria that can help to rebalance gut microbiota4-5 when consumed in the right amount.
The objective of combining pre- and probiotics is to achieve stronger positive effects than with either component alone so that they are working synergistically6.
With between 70-80% of immune cells residing in the gut7, the gut microbiota and immune system function are inextricably linked.
From the moment we’re born, gut microbiota play a very important role when it comes to immune system development and its responses8-9. At birth, the gut is essentially sterile, and isn’t yet populated with the variety of bacteria needed to form an effective microbiome6. Following birth, microbiota start to become established, with further diversification when weaning onto solid food and a process that continues to change over time. The intestinal microbiota is fully matured by about three years of age8-9. The immune system itself can also be described as immature at the time of birth; evolving and adapting as we grow and learning to distinguish between those things that are a threat and the things that are beneficial.
Working together, gut microbiota and the immune system play an essential role in defending against harmful pathogens, maintaining tolerance of antigens10, and strengthening the body’s immune defences11.
For infants and children, it’s especially important to maintain the balance between the gut microbiota and the immune system given its role and influence in shaping life-long health12.
Gut dysbiosis occurs when there’s an imbalance in the body’s gut microbiota13. Gut dysbiosis is associated with several diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, type one diabetes and allergic disorders14-15.
There are several factors that can influence gut dysbiosis, including diet, the use of antibiotics, complementary feeding and physical and psychological stress16. However, the first weeks and months of life can also have a huge impact on the health of gut microbiota, with particular risk factors being17-18:
● Premature birth
● Birth by caesarean
Healthy breast-fed infants typically have a higher amount of the probiotic Bifidobacteria than other species. This probiotic is transmitted via birth and through breast milk19-20. Breast milk also contains non-digestible oligosaccharides, a type of complex carbohydrate that’s readily consumed by Bifidobacteria21.
Infants who are allergic to cow’s milk often present with gut dysbiosis, having an altered profile of gut microbes characterised by much lower levels of Bifidobacteria, and higher levels of adult-like bacteria22-23.
This imbalance of microbiota caused by gut dysbiosis can trigger an abnormal immune response, which in turn can contribute to the development of a food allergy, for example, a Cow’s Milk Allergy15, 22.
A Cow’s Milk Allergy occurs when the immune system has an abnormal reaction to cow’s milk protein26. Typically developing during the first few months of an infant’s life, Cow's Milk Allergy affects around 2-5% of infants under the age of one27.
Some studies have shown that synbiotics could help to regulate microbiota and immune response, both directly and indirectly24. They can be of assistance when it comes to managing, and reducing the severity of, symptoms of a Cow's Milk Allergy25, 29.
Currently, the main management for a Cow’s Milk Allergy is to remove all sources of cow’s milk from an infant’s diet. In the case of breastfed infants, the mother will usually be advised to follow a dairy-free diet to avoid cow’s milk passing through breast milk27-28.
Although this approach is effective in managing Cow’s Milk Allergy symptoms, synbiotics could in the future play an important role here. Synbiotics can help to rebalance and repopulate the gut microbiota with healthy bacteria, targeting the source of gut dysbiosis and therefore potentially the programming and development of immune responses and allergy1.
* SYNEO synbiotic blend: Bifidobacterium breve M-16V (probiotic) & short and long-chain galacto- and/or fructo-oligosaccharides (prebiotic). The only synbiotic blend within hypoallergenic formulas in the UK.'
† Market comparison of UK EHF and AAF data cards, September 2023.
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