The Fascinating Untold History of Probiotics

The history of probiotics is as old as human history. 

Gut health is not a new concept. In fact, good gut health has been valued for thousands of years.

The ancient Greeks used to eat fermented foods to promote good health, and even Hippocrates wrote about the importance of a healthy gut.

What has changed in recent years is our discovery and understanding of probiotics and how we can use them to improve our health.

Today, we know that the gut microbiota can affect everything from our immune system to our mood, and that probiotics can help promote a healthy gut and overall health. In fact, research suggests that probiotics can help with several different conditions, including diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome. (1) (2) 

Who Discovered Probiotics?

Probiotics were discovered in the early 1900s by a Russian man by the name of Élie Metchnikoff, a scientist and Nobel prize winner.

Not long before that, Louis Pasteur had discovered the microorganisms that allowed for the process of the fermentation of food and drink, not knowing at the time that they were also beneficial for human health.

So while Pasteur discovered the microorganisms responsible for fermenting food, Metchnikoff was the first to theorize that these and other microorganisms themselves benefit human health.

Élie Metchnikoff’s discovery came about because he noticed that in the region of Bulgaria where he was working and living, the rural people of the area tended to live longer lives. He noted that these people had a diet high in fermented dairy products such as yogurt, and suspected that there may have been a connection between having a diet high in these microorganisms and longevity of life.

Élie Metchnikoff was ahead of his time. His discovery didn’t really take hold in the scientific community until decades later.

The term “probiotics” didn’t come into use until 1953, when it was coined by a German scientist named Werner Kollath, which he used to describe “active substances that are essential for a healthy development of life.” (3) The term “probiotic” comes from from the latin pro and the greek βιοσ, which translates to “for life”.

Early Use of Probiotics

Although humans didn’t know it for much of the time, use of probiotics is essentially as old as human history. (4) Probiotic food dates back to around 10,000 years ago, when hunting and gathering was starting to be replaced by farming and people started producing fermented foods.

One of the first written documents on the early use of probiotics comes from around 4000 B.C. from a Sumerian farmer who reported high returns on his milk, butter, and cheese for the year that came from his herd of cattle. Additionally, the first documented pictorial evidence of humans using cows for their milk (which is loaded with probiotics) dates back to 3100 B.C. from a drawing from Mesopotamia that depicts a man sitting on a stool, milking a cow, and collecting it in a bucket. (3)

The History of Fermented & Other Probiotic Foods

Image of fermented probiotic foods on a table from above

The origins of fermented milk, A.K.A. yogurt, dates back to ancient Egypt. The ancient Egyptians and other people of the surrounding regions collected milk from multiple animals: cows, goats, horses, sheep, and camels. They would keep this milk in bags made from the skin/stomach of the same type of animal. (3)

Tibetan nomads have been consuming fermented yak milk since ancient times. The antioxidant properties are thought to play a role in keeping them healthy in the extreme conditions that come with living in such high altitude. (5)

There’s a Turkish legend that has been passed on that says that a shepherd left milk in a goatskin bag out in the desert sun and he later found that it had been turned into a delicious custard. It’s not exactly clear when fermented probiotic food discoveries like this occurred, but luck played a major role. Yogurt ended up being a particularly useful discovery for nomadic people, as it was nonperishable, easy to store, and easily transportable.

Probiotic foods were mentioned in the Bible and other religious texts. In Genesis (18: 1-8), Abraham offers the lord “veal, buns and sour milk.” Legend has it that the prophet Muhammad of Islam gave the first kefir grains to the people of the Caucasus mountain range at the intersection of Europe and Asia.

In the Odyssey by Homer, an ancient Greek poem, one of the oldest written texts still read today, cheese is prepared in a cave by a cyclops named Polyphemus. There are Ancient Greek texts that speak of giving cheese to olympic athletes. Production of cheese became more common in the late middle ages, where it was made in monasteries.

Marco Polo, the Venetian explorer, reported drinking a fermented milk drink called “chemmisi” in his travels to China.

As you can see, probiotics have been consumed throughout human history. As agriculture developed, so too did the different types of fermented food and drink. Of course, it wasn’t until modern science came about that we learned about probiotic microorganisms and their health benefits.

Fecal Microbiota Transplantation

The story behind the history of probiotics wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the less savory side of probiotics, fecal microbiota transplantation, or stool transplants. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s when a healthy person donates their poop to a recipient with a gastrointestinal disease or infection.

One of the first studies on fecal microbiota transplantation was from 1958 and successfully treated four patients with fulminant pseudomembranous enterocolitis, a lethal disease known to be caused by clostridium difficile. (6)

Fecal microbiota transplantation is still practiced to this day and “has an extensive track record of success curing Clostridium difficile infection (CDI) with remarkably few adverse effects”. (7)

Use of Probiotics Today

Image of a person putting a probiotic supplement in their hand

The symbiotic relationship between us humans and the microorganisms in our digestive systems has been studied extensively in recent years. Mounting evidence indicates that the microbiota plays an important role in “human host homeostasis, health and disease”. (8)

In recent years, there has been a rapid increase in demand for probiotics as more people learn about their health benefits. In 2018, it was estimated to be a 48.38 billion dollar industry — and is expected to grow to 77.09 billion dollars by 2025! (9)

As public interest in probiotics has grown, so too have the number of studies done on the topic. It’s estimated that over 19,000 studies have been done on probiotics now, which is a 34-fold increase over what had existed just over a decade ago. (9)

How Probiotics May Be Used in The Future

Image of two scientists studying probiotics

The history of probiotics is long and complex, and nobody truly knows what the future of probiotics will be. Whatever the future of probiotics may be, it will be driven by state-of-the-art research and technology. Even though there has been a massive increase in studies on probiotics in recent years, there is still much to learn.

Based on developments over the past few years, here are some predictions we think the future of probiotics may hold:

  • A more comprehensive approach to improving the microbiome as a whole instead of just focusing on probiotics. More study will be done on administering prebiotics along with probiotics and the effects of eliminating or reducing intakes of food and drink known to be harmful to gut health.
  • There is still a lot to learn about individual probiotic strains and their health benefits. Once more is known, one thing we think that may happen is that more specific probiotics can be taken based on an individual’s needs.
  • More real-time in vivo microbiome sampling research will be done, which will lead to a plethora of new discoveries. Real-time in vivo microbiome sampling uses small pills that are ingestible, biocompatible and do not require batteries. These pills go through the digestive system and gather data.
  • Assessment of the microbiome will become more commonplace in physical examinations. The data from these assessments will be able to be used to evaluate what an individual needs to improve their gut health and overall health.

The Takeaway

Probiotics may have been discovered in the 20th century, but the relationship between probiotics and humans has gone on much longer than that. Probiotics have likely been with us for all of human existence and it has been a mutually beneficial relationship.

The history of probiotics has been a relatively new development. They were only discovered just over a hundred years ago and it wasn’t even until the 1990s when the scientific community started seriously studying them. That suggests that what we currently know about probiotics is just the tip of the iceberg, and that there is much more to discover.


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