The Science Behind Spore-Based Probiotics (and Why It's Important)

Have you ever seen your kid or dog eat dirt?

You probably freaked out. But healthwise, maybe there was something innately beneficial to their urge to consume a bit of soil.

Let’s dig a little deeper …

Spore-based probiotics, or spore-based organisms (SBO), are tiny organisms produced by bacteria found naturally in soil. Before industrialized farming and modern sterilization techniques became the norm, we were regularly exposed to SBOs through eating home-grown produce and drinking water from fresh springs and wells.1

This natural exposure to SBOs was advantageous because it helped us develop microbially diverse microbiomes – varied colonies of beneficial bacteria that strengthened our immune systems and kept us healthier overall. Besides supporting a diverse microbiome, SBOs have been shown to help with nutrient absorption, reducing digestive discomfort like gas and bloating, and regulating bowel function.

However, getting SBOs from the foods we eat and the water we drink is a bit harder today. That’s where supplementing with probiotics – and, in particular, spore-based probiotics – comes in.

But probiotic supplements are as varied as the strains they contain. Knowing the difference between spore-based and traditional probiotics and which strains to look for can help you choose a formula that’s right for you. First, though, a little primer on spores:

All About Spores

Spores are naturally resilient. They have to be to survive extremely inhospitable environments like, say, churning pools of stomach acid.

Their resilience lies in their ability to produce endospores, the most durable type of cells found in nature and a key survival strategy for bacteria. Bacillus spores, for example, have been isolated from amber that is more than 25 million years old, demonstrating the metabolic dormancy and protective capability of spores.2

The outer surface of endospores has hydrophobic characteristics that make the spores insoluble as they journey through the GI tract. The endospores that encapsulate the probiotic strains also make them resistant to stomach and bile acids as well as to heat, light, ultraviolet radiation, solvents, and hydrogen peroxide.2 This allows for germination in the small intestine, the optimal functional location for probiotic residence.

To demonstrate their ability to reach the intestines, a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study involving 11 participants with ileostomies showed the Bacillus subtilis DE111 spores and vegetative cells present in the ileum effluent just three hours after ingestion. Six hours after ingestion, the spore and vegetative concentration increased and remained constant for 8 hours.3

The Difference Between Spore-based and Traditional Probiotics

There is a considerable distinction between spore-based probiotics, which are shelf-stable, and traditional probiotics, which usually need refrigeration.

Probiotics must endure gastric acid, bile salts, and degrading enzymes, all before they arrive at their functional site in the gastrointestinal tract. In the stomach alone, due to ionic strength, enzyme activity, and mechanical churning, the viable cells of specific probiotics such as Bifidobacterium longum and Bifidobacterium breve have been shown to be undetectable in simulated gastric juice within an hour.4 If they make it to the colon, viable probiotics must then manage to colonize the gut in competition with indigenous bacteria.

And unlike traditional probiotics that reproduce to form a stable replicating population, spores have the ability to recondition the gut through microbial diversity and support the growth of beneficial bacteria, including keystone species such as Akkermansia.1

Get to Know Some Great SBOs

Although probiotics are commonly used for gastrointestinal health, spores provide astonishing multisystem health benefits. Bacillus species, for example, play a role in modulating a healthy inflammatory response and supporting immune regulation, hormonal balance, and even cardiovascular health.

Of the hundred species contained in the Bacillus genus, only a select few are used as probiotics, including Bacillus subtilis, Bacillus coagulans, Bacillus clausii, Bacillus pumilus, Bacillus licheniformis, Bacillus natto (subtilis), Bacillus polyfermentans, Bacillus cereus var. toyoi, and Bacillus cereus.11

Let’s take a closer look at three noteworthy strains that have been the subject of recent research.

Bacillus coagulans MTCC 5856 (LactoSpore)

Bacillus coagulans MTCC 5856, or Lactospore, is a lactic acid-producing bacteria, hence its name.

Human clinical trials on this spore show therapeutic benefits in various gastrointestinal conditions. In one study, Lactospore demonstrated a significant decrease in symptoms such as bloating, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and stool frequency in individuals with diarrhea-predominant IBS.5

Another randomized clinical trial conducted among 40 participants with IBS and major depressive disorder found that supplementation with 2 billion CFUs of Bacillus coagulans MTCC 5856 for 90 days significantly improved IBS symptoms related to quality of life compared to placebo. The study further found that the probiotics supplementation led to significant improvements in mood.6

Bacillus Subtilis DE111

Bacillus subtilis DE111 is a clinically tested strain that supports digestion and immune health. Traditionally used in Japan and Africa in the preparation of fermented foods, Bacillus subtilis can produce a variety of different enzymes, including lipase, carbohydrases, amylase, protease, and cellulase. It also works with endogenous enzymes to support the absorption of nutrients.7 Additionally, DE111 produces specific proteases that can help break down gluten and other allergen foods such as egg, soy, and dairy to reduce the effects of sensitivity in those who react to them.

Recent evidence suggests that Bacillus subtilis may be part of normal gut microbiota and play a critical role in immune development and GI health. In a study involving 50 individuals with occasional constipation and/or diarrhea, DE111 was supplemented for 90 days and was found to help protect against occasional constipation or diarrhea and support overall regularity, transit, and composition of fecal matter.8

This strain has also proven beneficial for supporting gastrointestinal and immune health in infants and children. A study with 91 children ages 2–6 used DE111 for eight weeks and saw an increase in diversity of the microbiome.9

Bacillus clausii SC108 (Munispore)

Bacillus clausii SC108 naturally occurs in whole grains and in fermented foods and beverages. Although transient in nature, research reveals it has the ability to adhere to the epithelial lining of the gut using adhesion-related proteins, which permits it to increase germination in the GI tract before it re-sporulates.10 Once present in the gut, it has been shown to crowd out pathogenic microbes, allowing healthy gut flora to thrive.

Munispore has a very robust antioxidant profile which contributes to its ability to combat cell-damaging oxidative stress, as well as support healing and immune regulation. This antioxidant capacity has been shown to protect against free radicals that affect tight junctions and help repair those junctions more quickly. Although a handful of probiotics exhibit antioxidant activity, Munispore’s total antioxidant capacity (TAC) is significantly higher than the well-known Lactobacillus rhamnosus.20

Bacillus clausii stands out from other Bacillus strains with its ability to modulate the immune response. It is further characterized by an intrinsic resistance to penicillins and other medications, which makes it safe to use in conjunction with antibiotic therapy.11

Making Spores a Regular Thing

Once an integral part of our daily lives, spore-based probiotics provide a safe and effective way to support our microbiomes and overall health. With their resilience and ability to survive treacherous conditions throughout the stomach and intestines, spores offer health benefits that reach far beyond the gastrointestinal tract. They can play an impactful and therapeutic role in regulating digestion as well as in supporting immune function and cardiovascular and hormonal health.

All that said, perhaps these tiny microorganisms should be considered as part of a daily supplement routine. No dirt required!