What Are Prebiotics?

For people all over the world, staying in shape and taking care of personal health is important. One of the most critical parts of the body related to wellness and immunity is the stomach, and there are certain foods and substances that can help optimize gut health, such as dietary fiber and probiotics. In recent years, a lot of attention has been paid to these dietary elements, but what about prebiotics? Are they just another diet fad? Or something that can significantly help our overall health?

Short Answer: Prebiotics are an ideal complement to probiotics, as they provide fuel for the beneficial bacteria in our gut, which helps improve digestion, immunity, nutrient levels and general fitness.

Probiotics vs. Prebiotics

There is still quite a bit of confusion over these two subjects in health circles, particularly by people who are just starting to get their gastrointestinal health in order. The similarity in their names certainly doesn’t help, but they are two distinctly different things. Probiotics are live bacteria cultures or yeast that can actually improve the health of your gastrointestinal system. Many people associate bacteria with illness or infection, but there are countless types of beneficial bacteria that help our bodies break down food and protect the gut from any unwanted pathogens or substances.

While these bacteria are naturally found in our gut, probiotics can provide a healthy boost if our bacterial balance gets out of whack. That can happen through poor diet, illness or medication, such as antibiotics. Probiotics are found in a number of different common foods, such as yogurt, cheese, kefir, kombucha, miso, sauerkraut and other fermented foods. These probiotics can help move food through the gut by stimulating peristaltic motion and speeding the breakdown of food. This can also help to eliminate symptoms of constipation, bloating, cramping and excess gas!

The only problem with probiotics is that they aren’t the most hardy bacteria, and are typically Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains. Intense heat and high levels of stomach acid can cause these probiotics to fail before they can have a positive effect on our digestion.

Prebiotics, on the other hand, are the nutrients that feed probiotic bacteria, helping to keep them strong and durable as they do their important work. Prebiotics are a specialized type of insoluble plant fiber, known as oligosaccharides, which the body does not digest in the same way as normal food. Instead, these prebiotics pass through the body undigested, but do act as a kind of fertilizer for the beneficial bacteria already located in your stomach. This fiber acts as fuel to strengthen good bacteria and improve the balance in your gut. However, unlike probiotics, prebiotics aren’t destroyed by the body or used up; they also aren’t susceptible to heat or highly acidic conditions.

To put it another way, if probiotics are the players waiting on the bench, prepared to fill in where necessary, prebiotics are the Gatorade that all the players need to stay in shape.  While prebiotics aren’t as popular or well known as probiotics, they can offer an impressive amount of health benefits, particularly for people who are struggling with gastrointestinal problems.

Where Can I Get Prebiotics?

Prebiotics are slightly less available than probiotics, simply because they aren’t as present in as many common foods. Some of the best sources of prebiotics include underripe bananas, onions, root vegetables, artichokes, leeks, garlic, cabbage asparagus, apples, beans and chicory root. In fact, chicory root has the highest percentage of oligosaccharides of any food yet discovered, and can be included in a number of simple recipes.

Prebiotics can also be taken in supplement form, if you aren’t willing or able to change your diet to include such fiber-heavy foods. These prebiotic powders can be mixed into other sauces, as well as health shakes and smoothies. It has a very mild flavor and an unobtrusive texture, so even blending it into a glass of water is a viable way to consume this beneficial fiber. Obviously, there are quite a few other health benefits that come along with eating some of those prebiotic-containing foods, so that is the recommended means of increasing your prebiotic levels.

There are other types of fiber – aside from insoluble fiber – that are necessary to stimulate and regulate digestion, so be sure to combine various types of vegetables and fibers for a balanced diet and a healthy gut.

Benefits of Prebiotics

Aside from the improved health of the bacteria in your stomach, prebiotics have also been linked to other health benefits that make them even more appealing! More than 50% of immune function occurs in the gut, making it our “second brain” in many ways, so an improvement in gut health can effect many other parts of the body.

Cognitive ability, stress, anxiety and hormone fluctuations have all been linked to the proper and regular use of prebiotics and probiotics. The microbiome of our gut can be an incredibly influential place, so taking care of it is critical! Most importantly, for some people, is the effect that prebiotics can have on obesity and weight loss efforts. By optimizing digestion and improving nutrient balance, your body is able to metabolize food and energy sources more efficiently, and absorb more critical nutrients – just like this guy!

When your digestive system is operating at such a high level, the body’s metabolism will increase, leading to more passive calorie-burning and weight loss, in addition to eliminating cramping, bloating and stomach upset.

All in all, prebiotics are an excellent way to feel, look and function in a healthier way, so make the tiny tweak to your diet – you won’t regret it!

References:

  1. Penn State Extension
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention U.S. Centers
  3. Hindawi.com
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About the Author:

John Staughton is a traveling writer, editor and publisher who earned his English and Integrative Biology degrees from the University of Illinois in Champaign, Urbana. He is the co-founder of a literary journal, Sheriff Nottingham, and calls the most beautiful places in the world his office. On a perpetual journey towards the idea of home, he uses words to educate, inspire, uplift and evolve.

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