By Dr. Colin O'Brien, ND
I can remember when a probiotic was still considered a novel idea. You could recommend a lactobacillus acidophilus supplement to a patient experiencing gas and bloating, and they had never before heard the term “probiotic”.
It wasn’t even on their radar in terms of possible interventions. The best part was that a single-strain probiotic sometimes worked wonders; and it still sometimes does!
Then the concept of “multi-strain” probiotics came along and they became the new elevated standard for probiotic supplementation, continued the conversation of these “good bugs” and overall raised probiotic awareness with the general public.
Now, it is hard to find someone that hasn’t heard of (and tried) a probiotic for their digestive health.
What happens when you’ve tried various multi-strain probiotics, higher CFU (colony-forming units) counts or strain-specific products and nothing is helping?
To state the obvious, it could be that probiotics just aren’t the answer for your particular gastrointestinal issues - there may be a food intolerance, digestive enzyme insufficiency, functional dyspepsia, hormonal imbalances, etc.
But maybe you need something stronger than the typical lactobacillus and bifidobacterium probiotics. Maybe you need a spore-forming probiotic.
What is a “spore-forming” probiotic?
A spore-forming, or spore-based, probiotic is a beneficial bacteria that naturally enters a protective, dormant spore phase if survival is threatened.
This means that they are incredibly resistant to environmental threats like stomach acid or temperature changes when they are in this protective stage of their life cycle.
In fact, spores can survive for years in their dormant phase, and then they will still germinate in the small intestine when the appropriate nutrients become available.
Being able to survive is certainly an advantage for any probiotic, but the main reason that spore-based probiotics carry an edge over lactobacillus or bifidobacterium species is that they have greater antimicrobial effects above and beyond those of traditional strains.
Bacillus coagulans is one spore-based probiotic that has been well-studied for this exact antimicrobial purpose.
Bacillus coagulans can prevent the growth of pathogenic bacteria through numerous mechanisms.
For example, it creates an anaerobic and acidic environment in the intestines that makes the digestive tract inhospitable for the “bad bugs” but ideal conditions for lactobacillus and bifidobacterium species to flourish.
It also competes with the pathogenic bacteria for resources, effectively starving them, and it directly secretes antibacterial compounds to halt their growth.
Perhaps this is why Bacillus coagulans has been shown to prevent dysbiosis and related digestive concerns with antibiotic use, such as antibiotic-associated diarrhea.
What does this all mean for the person taking the spore-former?
Clinical trials have shown that specific strains of Bacillus coagulans can help to reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in adults and children including abdominal discomfort, bloating and the sense of incomplete evacuation.
It has also been shown to help relieve symptoms associated with functional constipation. In all of these trials, a relatively low dose of just 2 billion CFUs per day did the trick. This is a circumstance where more is not necessarily better.
As is the case with all treatment interventions and natural health products, some people respond better to certain supplements than others.
There’s not a guaranteed algorithm to determine if you are the proper candidate for spore-forming probiotics.
The point is that continuing to try and fit a square peg into a round hole isn’t going to get you anywhere - maybe it’s time to try a different approach for your digestive symptoms if you aren’t seeing success with your current strategy.
Arguably, a spore-forming probiotic like Bacillus coagulans is warranted in stubborn cases of IBS when a traditional lactobacillus and/or bifidobacterium probiotic is not showing any improvements.
In addition, if stool testing identifies pathogenic bacteria, viruses or parasites, or a significant dysbiotic microflora (an imbalance in good and bad bacteria), spore-forming probiotics also might be worth a try.
Bacillus coagulans also makes a great travel probiotic because of their aforementioned heat resistance.
If you do decide to pick up a spore-forming probiotic, some practitioners recommend that it’s supplemented for 3-6 months before being traded off for a more traditional multi-strain option.
That being said, it’s always best to speak with a healthcare practitioner that is familiar with your health history so that they can give more tailored treatment guidance and to rule out more severe digestive concerns.
Dr. Colin O’Brien ND is a practicing doctor at Sprout Wellness Clinic in Kitchener-Waterloo, ON. He has a strong focus on clinical nutrition and nutritional supplementation within a family medicine context. He continues to fulfill his passion for research, writing and education in his role as the Medical Director for Cyto-Matrix.