Interest in probiotic supplements is soaring these days, thanks to new studies that reveal the wonderful potential benefits of these amazing microorganisms.
There are many reasons why everyone should take a daily probiotic, and a great deal of research supports the importance of gut health and a balanced gut microbiome. However, it's important to understand that although soil-based organisms (SBOs) fall under the same category as the probiotics that are resident in the human digestive tract, the truth is that they are simply not the same types of bacteria—SBOs are spores that come from the ground and they are not naturally found in your body.
So, before adding an SBO supplement to your nutritional regimen, it helps to familiarize yourself with the controversy that's taking place around these tiny dirt dwellers.
Soil Microbes vs. Gut Microbes
SBOs are beneficial in many ways, but the benefits of SBOs are very different from those of probiotics that live in the human body. Soil organisms enrich the soil for plants, and since humans and livestock eat many of these plants, we want the soil to provide optimal nutrients for crops.
A century ago, soil-based organisms were normal components in our food, but urbanization and the subsequent rise in processed food production has virtually eliminated them from our diets. These microbes are only transient visitors to the human microbiome, and even though we used to consume more of them, SBOs were never meant to be part of the symbiotic relationship between our gut and our immune system.
Many of us remember the joy of playing in the dirt and making “mud pies” to feed to unfortunate younger siblings and cousins, but did you know that this grubby childhood rite actually helped build our immunity? Indeed, incidental exposure to SBOs can help enhance and train our immune systems, but SBOs in supplements may not be as beneficial.
Why SBOs may not be safe as supplements
Now that our gut microbiomes are less familiar with SBOs (from a decrease in exposure), and due to the fact that most of our gut microbiomes are compromised, SBOs can compete with our resident gut flora rather than complement them. In some instances, SBOs can even become pathogenic, and this scenario is more likely in an out of balance microbiome.
One of the primary reasons to supplement with probiotics is to help counteract the devastation that environmental toxins, the overuse of antibiotics, and modern dietary choices have wrought on our gut flora balance. While it may seem logical to supplement with SBOs since we no longer ingest them regularly, this line of logic is a major cause of disagreement among experts.
You see, it makes sense to replace probiotics that are supposed to live in the digestive tract, because an imbalance
can lead to poor gut health and issues related to compromised immune function. SBOs, on the other hand, were never supposed to be part of the gut microbiome.
Supplementing with soil organisms and introducing foreign microbes when your intestinal tract is not properly colonized with resident bacteria is like inviting a group of squatters over to a vacant home and crossing your fingers that they won't move in and take over. To make matters worse, SBOs are spore forming and they proliferate rapidly—so rapidly, in fact, that many manufacturing facilities that grow probiotic strains found in the human gut consider SBOs to be contaminants. They know that if they don’t take every precaution to keep them out, SBOs could take over and create a nightmare scenario. Because of this, they even refer to them as the “cockroaches of the industry.”
Some studies have suggested that SBOs are similar to the dreaded super germs that resist classic antibiotic treatments. For example, many of the most common strains of SBOs come from the Bacillus genus, including the subtilis and lichenformus species. Bacillus strains are extremely hardy and form spores that can resist stomach acids and antibiotics. This characteristic actually makes SBOs more desirable to marketers because they will survive not only your stomach acids, but also extreme heat and even food processing.
The shelf life for SBOs is simply amazing, which also happens to be the biggest challenge manufacturers must overcome for microbes that reside in the human gut. And, since they technically fall under the label of “probiotics,” it’s an incredibly convenient and easy way to add probiotics to everything from supplements to hot teas and nutritional bars without having to figure out a way to keep the organisms alive. Problem solved...no refrigeration required!
It's also this spore-forming trait that makes a Bacillus overgrowth incredibly difficult to treat. The spores are so tough that they can hibernate in the intestines throughout a course of strong antibiotic therapy, only to resurface after the threat has passed.
According to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), many species of Bacillus can cause serious healthy issues, while others are opportunistic bacteria that make great insecticides. Bacillus subtilis, considered a comparatively benign member of this genus, is one of the species used in SBO supplements—but subtilis is also an active ingredient in many industrial detergents and cleaners, and the EPA cautions against allergic reactions and sensitivities to products containing these microbes.
What you don’t know CAN hurt you.
Compared to traditional probiotics, research regarding the safety of SBOs is limited. Studies indicate that some SBOs are harmful to mammals, and there are species that release peptides capable of interfering with hemoglobin production. Even the least virulent of these organisms are able to integrate foreign genetic material and alter their own cellular makeup. We have no idea what this could mean in the end, but it's a frightening concept, nonetheless.
We spoke with one professional in the probiotics industry who stated, “I think SBOs are fine if added to food but I do not recommend them if they are in a higher quantity supplement form.” When asked if he would eat food products with added SBOs, his reply was, “Well, no. And my son is immune compromised, so I definitely don’t let him eat those products because the verdict is still out.” Hmmm…
It seems the bottom line is that anyone with a compromised gut might want to think twice before exposing themselves to probiotics containing SBOs, whether in food or supplement form. SBOs may appear on labels as “soil probiotics,” “homeostatic soil organisms (HSOs)," “bacterial soil organisms (BSOs)," or simply, “soil organisms (SOs)."
Instead, focus on supplements that contain resident human probiotic strains until you are absolutely confident that your digestive tract is properly colonized and well-equipped to reap the benefits of exposure to these transient soil based strains, without putting your health at risk.
Julie Hays is the Communications Director here at Hyperbiotics. Health writer and mama of two little girls, Julie's on a mission to empower others to live lives free of the microbial depletion many of us face today. For more ideas on how you can maximize wellness and benefit from the power of probiotics, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.