You’ve probably seen adverts for probiotics and prebiotics, stressing their importance in maintaining a healthy gut microbiome. However, you may not have come across why they hold the key to putting humans on Mars.

Probiotics are the ‘good’ bacteria we find in food, while prebiotics are types of fibre that feed these beneficial bacteria.

A new review study has shown how promoting a healthy gut microbiome will be essential in long-term space missions. The solution, it seems, involves clever strategies with pro and prebiotics.

An illustration of space travel. Photo credit: Pixabay

The future of space flight

Humans have evolved over the millennia to our natural Earthly habitats. Ever since Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, we’ve had to consider the effects of zero gravity and the space environment on the body.

And, after a lull in recent decades, 21st century plans for the future of space flight are starting to heat up. Private companies such as Blue Origin will soon make space tourism a reality. And NASA claims human exploration on Mars is on the horizon.

Keeping astronauts healthy

By now, we’ve seen plenty of astronauts exercising on the International Space Station. As such, we’re familiar with the detrimental effect microgravity can have on bone and muscle health.

In the latest review, published this week in journal Frontiers In Physiology, professor Silvia Turroni, of the University of Bologna, discusses another health factor during space travel – disruptions to the healthy gut microbiome.

Issues included how the microbiomes of space travellers on the same mission start to assimilate. Bacteria associated with intestinal inflammation were also seen to increase in abundance. Conversely, there’s a decrease of ‘friendly’ bacteria with natural anti-inflammatory properties.

Prof Turroni explains: “Changes in the microbiome are likely to lead to the breakdown of the balanced and complex relationship between microbes and their human host.”

Imbalances in the gut flora have been associated with a wide range of medical disorders. These include common disturbances that would wreak havoc on astronauts such as irritable bowel syndrome. Inappropriate immune response from the gut microbiome can also lead to more severe diseases such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, and even some types of cancer.

Space travel has been shown to alter the balance of a healthy gut microbiome. In addition to gravitational changes, this is thought to be caused by cosmic radiation and the types of food typically taken on missions. Scientists are racing to find solutions to this key issue in long-term space travel.

A rocket launches. Photo credit: Pixabay

Ideas for a healthy gut microbiome

By reviewing a variety of studies on the topic, Prof Turroni’s team found that “countermeasures based on prebiotics and probiotics hold great promise to protect space travellers”.

Solutions may be as straightforward as microbial supplements to boost the immune system or fibre-heavy meals to maintain nutritional balance. Fermented foods are associated with a healthy gut microbiome but aren’t the typical foods you’d think of taking along for space travel. There are now also investigations into fermentation in space.

Further research is required into optimal pro and prebiotic treatments, and how to tailor this to individuals.

Before we can get to searching for clues of life on Mars, better understanding is needed of the 100 trillion living microbes each astronaut will be taking along for the ride.

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