Prebiotics: What They Are and Why You Need Them
Updated: Nov 10, 2018
While probiotic rich foods and supplements are rapidly gaining popularity in the health and wellness sphere, they are not the only things to consider when it comes to the health of our gut. Prebiotics, also known as the foods that feed the beneficial bacteria in our digestive system, are extremely beneficial (necessary!) for overall health. Unfortunately, prebiotics are often under-appreciated and are seriously lacking in the average American’s diet. Which is why we felt it was important to shed some light on these lesser known health superstars and share ways in which you can boost your prebiotic intake.
As alluded to in our previous Gut Health posts (see Gut Healthy Supplements and Gut Healthy Foods), your gut contains both beneficial and harmful bacteria. This collection of bacteria is known as your microbiome, a term that encompasses the genetic makeup of these microbes (bacteria) and the home they live in (your gut). Healthy gut bacteria are responsible for numerous functions including protection from infection, absorption of nutrients, production of B vitamins and vitamin K2, and maintenance of healthy GI motility (in other words, keeping you “regular”). In a healthy gut the number of beneficial bugs FAR outweighs the number of nasty ones. However, anything and everything from antibiotics to stress and processed foods can throw off this delicate balance- a condition known as dysbiosis. Dysbiosis can contribute to a host of issues including, but not limited to, digestive symptoms, malabsorption of nutrients, and systemic illnesses (including auto-immune diseases). Many GI conditions are actually linked to an underlying dysbiosis. In fact, it has been found that 30-85% of patients who meet the criteria for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) actually have Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth, also known as SIBO (1). SIBO is essentially an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine- a form of dysbiosis. We will be elaborating on IBS and SIBO in future blog posts, but for the sake of this blog post just keep in mind that the health of your microbiome is incredibly important for your overall health.
Which is exactly why it’s essential that you nourish and support the healthy bacteria that reside in your gut- starting with a diet rich in prebiotics.
As I alluded to at the first of this post, prebiotics are foods that feed our microbiome. Like any living species, bacteria need quality nutrients to survive and thrive. An article in 1995 in the Journal of Nutrition first defined a prebiotic as (2) “a non-digestible food ingredient that beneficially affects the host by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of one or a limited number of bacteria in the colon, and thus improves host health.” While all prebiotics are carbohydrates, not all carbohydrates are prebiotics. In order to be considered a prebiotic, a given dietary carbohydrate must be 1) resistant to breakdown by gastric acid and digestive enzymes, 2) non-absorbable in the GI system, 3) fermentable by the intestinal bacteria (in other words, broken down by the gut microbes), and 4) stimulatory or inhibitory to the growth and/or activity of these bacteria (3). Because of the fact that gas production is a by-product of fermentation, it is important to keep in mind that prebiotics MAY actually aggravate symptoms in those who suffer from gas and bloating as part of IBS or a condition like SIBO. This is not a rule, however, and each individual is different. It is therefore important that you collaborate with a health care provider if you suffer from any of these conditions (or think that you might) so as to determine the most appropriate dietary and supplement plan for your specific case.
Now that we have clarified the “what’s” and “why’s” of prebiotics, let’s review some of the top sources of prebiotics. While probiotics are plentiful in such foods as kefir, sauerkraut, and kombucha (refer to our post on Gut Healthy Foods for more information), prebiotics are usually found in fiber-rich vegetables and whole grains. The following is a list of foods that are teaming with these gut boosting compounds and suggestions as to how to incorporate them into your diet:
-Raw Jerulsalem artichoke, aka sunchokes (shred onto salads or into wraps) -Dandelion greens (chop and add to salads or side dishes) -Under-ripe bananas (add to smoothies or slice on top of oatmeal) -Raw or cooked onions -Raw garlic (add to dressings or hummus) -Raw wheat bran (mix into smoothies, oatmeal, or yogurt)
While we always advocate for getting the majority of your probiotics and prebiotics through food sources, a supplement is sometimes beneficial. There are a multitude of prebiotic supplements available on the market and, as with any type of supplement, it can be overwhelming to pick one out. Some of the most commonly used prebiotic supplement ingredients are: agave inulin, acacia gum, apple pectin, oligofructose (aka fructo-oligosaccharides, or FOS), and flaxseed. Be sure and look for one from a reputable company that does not include any artificial ingredients or fillers. Both Jaci and I are excited to soon share a line of gut-health boosting supplements that we have been using that provide quality prebiotics. Not only do these supplements contain research-proven ingredients, the company that produces them has a vision and mission that completely aligns with the Follow Your Gut MDNP brand. Stay tuned for more!!
I hope this post was helpful and gave you a better understanding of what prebiotics are and their importance. At the end of the day, consuming prebiotics on top of a diet rich in plant-based, unprocessed foods will nourish your gut and set the stage for optimal health. As always, if you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact us.
Continue to Follow Your Gut,