Here at MyDomaine headquarters, we've been known to pose some intriguing questions when it comes to the topic of gut health. Can probiotics really improve your mood? What diet do doctors who study the digestive system follow? Are gut health and anxiety linked? Should you take a probiotic supplement even if you don't have gut issues?
To answer that last question, we turned to Ara Katz, co-founder and co-CEO of Seed, a company that's reinventing the way we think about the microbiome, to learn more about the benefits of probiotics. "While probiotics are typically associated with GI and digestive health, they can perform or enhance a variety of other roles critical to our health," the forward-thinking entrepreneur told MyDomaine.
Ahead, Katz breaks down the benefits of probiotics that will make you want to clear some space in your medicine cabinet for a supplement that promotes a healthy microbiome. Keep scrolling to learn more about the role probiotics play in our overall health, the myths about the microbiome you shouldn't buy into, and the one thing everyone should know about gut health.
What role do probiotics play in our overall health?
Scientifically speaking, probiotics are "live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host," according to the World Health Organization. Beneficial microbes (e.g., probiotics) work in various ways to promote health:
1. Play an essential role in nutrient absorption and food digestion
2. Synthesize and activate vitamins, particularly B vitamins and vitamin K
3. Regulate metabolism
4. Enhance the function of the intestinal inner lining, especially as a protective barrier to reduce "leaky gut"
5. Suppress excessive inflammation
6. Produce by-products like short-chain fatty acids, which have been extensively shown to be beneficial for metabolic and immune health
7. Compete with pathogens, produce neutralizing substances to block pathogenic bacterial effects, and inhibit the growth of harmful microbes
8. Degrade cholesterol
9. Trigger neurotransmitters that stimulate muscle contractions for increased motility—think better, more regular poops
How do they actually do all this? As transient microbes, probiotics travel through your small intestine and colon, interacting with your immune cells, gut cells, dietary nutrients, and existing bacteria to, directly and indirectly, deliver benefits.
While probiotics can produce many benefits, it's important to note that not all probiotics are equal. It's important to look for specific strains that have undergone double-blind placebo-controlled trials to demonstrate the benefit being claimed.
Why do you believe probiotics belong in everyone's medicine cabinets?
Foundational to Seed is the concept that there are three ways in which we can impact our health: diet, exercise, and lifestyle factors. We see probiotics (i.e., beneficial microbes) as a complementary new tool alongside these levers.
With over 70% of the U.S. experiencing GI and digestive issues, that's a lot of medicine cabinets to justify existence in, but we look beyond that. We believe beneficial microbes can not only be effective with specific conditions but are also impactful at specific life stages and as a part of everyday proactive health. We take a microbe-systems approach with benefits beyond the gut that address cardiovascular health, dermatological health, immune function, gut barrier integrity, and oxidative stress—and our female formulation is the first on the market to increase folate production.
So even if you aren't dealing with digestive issues, probiotics offer new tools to preventively and proactively care for your whole self (not just your human part). It's also important to consider how everyday stressors like poor diet, alcohol, sugar, tobacco, processed foods, antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medication, and decreased sleep impact your microbiome. If we're successful, we hope people not only incorporate probiotics into their daily regimen but also consider their microbiome as they make critical choices for their body every day.
Can you speak to the name "Seed" and the concept behind the company?
"Seeding" is the foundational process by which a baby is first colonized by the mother's beneficial bacteria. These first microbes colonize your gastrointestinal system and help to set the foundation of your immune system, helping it distinguish between "friend" and "enemy." By the first few years of life, this early microbial community stabilizes into what is called the "steady-state microbiome", resembling more or less what you have today.
"Seed" is also symbolic because Raja (my co-founder) and I were introduced when I was pregnant with my first child, Pax. My journey through pregnancy and breastfeeding (with Raja's guidance and education) led to our collaborative vision for Seed.
What inspired you to develop Seed's Daily Synbiotic?
As research continues to confirm the profound influence of our microbiome on human health, global awareness around "gut health" has exploded. As a result, probiotics are now the fastest-growing consumer health category in the world, but the increasing availability of probiotic supplements, foods, and beverages has created a lot of confusion for consumers. We set out to develop a new standard in probiotics, introducing much-needed transparency, education, precision, and innovation to the category.
In collaboration with our chief scientist, Gregor Reid, we developed our Daily Synbiotic (with formulations for men and women)—the first in our pipeline of effective, scientifically validated probiotics that will continue to roll out in early 2019. And while most probiotics are intended to improve digestive function, we developed our Daily Synbiotic to deliver a range of clinically verified, systemic benefits including cardiovascular and dermatological health.
How is this probiotic different from those already on the market?
Our Daily Synbiotic was developed with leading microbiome scientists and global experts in formulation, biofermentation, and testing. It includes more than 20 clinically studied, naturally occurring, human-derived strains (Female, 24 - Male, 20) in combination with novel, patented plant-based prebiotics sourced from Indian pomegranate skin, Scandinavian chaga mushrooms, and pine bark. Our strains are unique to Seed and are not found in yogurt or fermented foods and beverages.
The combination of novel technology, leading scientists, mechanistic research, successful results in human trials, and testing protocols are both innovative and disruptive for consumer probiotics, which are not required to demonstrate efficacy under the FDA.
We also developed a proprietary algae delivery system to ensure the probiotics both survive and remain viable through digestion. As a result, there's not a synthetic or chemical coating and our product does not require refrigeration up to 79⁰F for up to 18 months.
This formula is specifically designed to increase folate production—can you explain why that is so beneficial?
Our female formulation is the first to increase folate production in the body. Folate is a critical vitamin—supporting the production and maintenance of red blood cells, as well as DNA. Specific microbes can synthesize a number of essential vitamins, like folate, inside your body.
In the female body specifically, folate also plays a crucial role in pregnancy and preventing serious birth defects. Women are routinely told to fortify their bodies with folate, typically through nutrition-rich foods like leafy greens, avocados, and citrus fruits or in the form of folic acid via supplements.
The "folate" found in supplements is often folic acid, the synthetic form of folate. When you take a folic acid supplement, it goes through a metabolic pathway in your liver to convert it into the bioavailable form of folate called methylfolate (5-MTHF). This is the form your body can use. 20% to 40% of women actually have a genetic mutation called MTHFR that prevents them from processing synthetic folic acid into usable folate. Additionally, folic acid supplements have a short half-life and are excreted by the body after seven hours.
What's one thing you wish everyone knew about gut health?
Probiotics are a serious field of science with a clearly defined scientific definition, despite that the term is often used loosely. As a result, it's important to know what qualifies as a probiotic so that you can be sure what you're taking can provide the desired benefits.
As an example of this misunderstanding, fermented foods are not probiotics. Just because products contain live microorganisms doesn't mean they are a probiotic. You may ingest some bacteria when you consume fermented products, but rarely have those strains been shown to have a measurable effect on your body. In fact, very often, the bacteria used for fermentation are selected for their interactions with substrates like lactose or glucose, not necessarily because they play any role in human health.
How are you empowering consumers to positively impact their health?
In addition to clarifying a confusing category like probiotics, we believe knowledge is a powerful tool for proactive health; the more we understand about our microbes, the better choices we can make every day for our health. And while our products have clear benefits, we are very clear that health doesn't come in a bottle and that nothing can replace good lifestyle choices. We use the microbiome as a new lens and will be offering actionable advice grounded in science so our community can live more scientifically and care for their microbiome and in turn, themselves.
Are there any myths about the microbiome that you'd like to dispel?
Generalizing "probiotics" is like generalizing books. By definition, a "probiotic" is a live microorganism that confers a health benefit in the human body. Unless a strain has demonstrated a health benefit in a human trial, it should not be called a "probiotic".
Secondly, most criticism of probiotics from microbiome scientists is based on two ideas:
1. Everyone's microbiome is different.
2. Probiotics do not "take up residence" in the gut.
Both of these statements are true, however, the mistake is in therefore implying that probiotics don't work. The foundation of our approach is looking at beneficial microbes that demonstrate an effect on the human body independent of someone's starting microbiome. It's also well known that probiotics don't colonize, and their benefit is dependent on continuous consumption. Actually, that's a good thing. We recommend caution with "spore-forming" soil-based probiotics that claim to colonize since you don't know what it's replacing in a healthy individual.
What's next for Seed?
We believe bacteria will touch almost every aspect of our lives in the coming years and advances in microbiome science will continue to radically transform our approach to medicine, hygiene, diet, and living.
In collaboration and partnership with scientists and partners around the world, we're developing a pipeline of consumer probiotics and live biotherapeutics targeting specific body sites and life stages in which the microbiome impacts human health. Since my experience with pregnancy and breastfeeding led me to the microbiome and ignited a personal mission to reinvent infant formula, mother and infant health is one of our core areas of focus.
If you asked me for our vision, I'd say that in five to seven years we are a global name in bacteria, with a successful financial business model, as well as humanitarian and environmental initiatives, making a measurable impact in both human and planetary health.