The relationship between the digestive system and our overall health has been known for centuries. As early as 400 BC, Hippocrates, the Greek physician considered to be the Father of Medicine explored this topic and concluded that a bad digestion might be the root of all diseases.
Digestive problems such as heartburn, bloating, food sensitivities or constipation are familiar symptoms for many people. Whereas individuals with occasional discomfort revert to a healthy state rather quickly, those with chronic issues are likely to stay in an unhealthy condition and require continuous support. Both groups are actively seeking solutions to improve their digestive well-being, and this need is reflected in a growing demand for products that support better digestive health. According to Euromonitor’s 2018 market data, the digestive support segment forms 10% of the total dietary supplements market and has registered strong single-digit growth in recent years.
The dynamic research realm of digestive health
Today, digestive health and particularly, the connection between gut, microbiome and brain is one of the most cutting-edge areas of life science research. Only recently have scientists started to better understand the gut-microbiome-brain axes and how the two-way communication between gut and brain may positively influence digestive conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The intense research in the area of digestive health is reflected by a huge increase in scientific publications in recent years: In 2010, there were less than 500 papers listed in PubMed. This number increased six-fold to more than 3,000 articles published in 2018. Some of the most recent emerging research suggests that human milk oligosaccharides (HMO) play a promising role in supporting digestive health.
The HMO advantage in breastmilk
There is broad consensus that breast feeding is the best nutrition for optimal growth and development during infancy. Breastfeeding is also associated with favorable mid-to long-term outcomes, such as - lower risks of respiratory or gastrointestinal infections, allergies, diabetes or obesity in later life. HMO are a diverse group of oligosaccharides, representing the third largest solid component naturally occurring in human breastmilk. A liter of human breastmilk contains about 5 to 15 grams of HMOs.
As such, the concentration of HMO is about 300 times higher than in cow’s milk. HMOs are one of the major differentiators between human breastmilk and bovine milk.
More than 130 different HMO structures have been identified, with 2’-Fucosyllactose (2’-FL) being the most abundant. HMO are non-digestible by human intestinal enzymes and thus, the majority reaches the colon unchanged and is metabolized by the gut microbiota. Infants who are breastfed enjoy the important benefits of human milk oligosaccharides which help to build up the microbiota by promoting the colonization of beneficial bacteria, mainly bifidobacteria in the gut.
Increasingly, ongoing studies show the clinical relevance of deviations from a “healthy” microbiota, especially during early life (e.g. dysbiosis preceding allergic diseases, metabolic syndrome or obesity). Next to prebiotic functions, HMO were shown to play a role in reducing infections during early life and to protect against inflammatory and allergic diseases.
The science behind 2’-FL for digestive health
Based on current knowledge, the value of 2’-FL for digestive health in various life-stages comprises three main elements.
1. Selectively stimulating beneficial microbiota
2’-FL has been proven to specifically promote the growth of bifidobacteria, which are generally recognized as beneficial bacteria throughout human life. Various gastrointestinal diseases have been associated with lower levels of bifidobacteria, e.g. IBS or celiac disease. In healthy adults, supplementation of 2’-FL was found to shift the gastrointestinal microbiota and to increase the abundance of bifidobacteria, thus opening up a viable strategy to counteract dysbiosis related to low bifidobacteria levels.
2. Direct interactions with the intestinal cell surfaces to exert anti-pathogenic and anti-inflammatory activities
Campylobacter jejuni is a major cause of gastrointestinal infections and diarrhea. A couple of years ago, it was found that Campylobacter diarrhea occurred less often in babies whose mother’s milk contained high levels of 2’-FL. Meanwhile, mechanistic studies shed light on this observation: due to the specific molecular structure, 2’-FL is able to act as a decoy receptor for pathogens, preventing the adhesion to the host cells – the first step of infections.
Recent data demonstrate that 2’-FL can attenuate inflammation in experimental models. Hence, 2’-FL may represent a novel preventative active to quench mucosal inflammation associated with diverse bowel disorders.
3. Interacting with the enteric nervous system
Further experimental models suggest that 2’-FL may help to improve the function of the enteric nervous system and may have a beneficial role in disorders involving pain sensation and dysmotility of the gut. More recent data from cell models propose that 2’-FL may help to manage stress-induced gut dysmotility, suggesting an impact on the gut-brain-axis in vivo.
Although research is still developing, available results already indicate that the value of 2’-FL for gastrointestinal health is multifaceted, both for infants and beyond, exceeding by far the functions of a standard prebiotic.
Differentiation with PREBILAC 2’-FL
The commercial availability of 2’-FL for the use in infant formula as well as dietary supplements will foster further research and facilitate the implementation of a ‘from humans to humans’ concept for the improvement of gastrointestinal wellbeing.
Through collaborations with academia and global thought leaders in HMO research, BASF is committed to drive the scientific basis and unlock new benefits in the field of HMO. BASF has successfully mastered the complete in-house development of 2’-FL from strain to downstream processing using a specifically stable HMO fermentation strain designed for large-scale production of a high-quality product. Recently, PREBILAC 2’-FL was launched for broad use beyond infant nutrition in dietary supplements, functional nutrition and medical food. Patents covering this beneficial use have been successfully granted in Japan and the United States. Meanwhile, patent applications on specific uses have been filed or sought in other markets across the globe. BASF expects to partner with customers in driving consumer health solutions to improve gut health globally for consumers across the stages of life.
For further information, please visit www.nutrition.basf.com/en/prebilac