Prebiotics and probiotics: what are they, what do they do, and do we need them both? Learn more about these gut health essentials here!
Gut health is one of the trendiest topics in nutrition right now. We now know that a healthy gut is essential to obtain optimal health, but how we do we get there?
Let’s start out by defining the gut and what gut health actually means. The gut is a group of interconnected organs within our body including the mouth, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small intestine, colon, and rectum. Also known as our digestive tract, the gut processes and metabolizes food to be used as energy.
The gut is home to trillions of microscopic organisms including bacteria, viruses, archaea, and other microbes (1). These microorganisms reside in the colon, or large intestine. Your gut microbiome is totally unique to you, and no two people have the same makeup.
Your gut microbiome plays a critical role in your overall health, from digestion, immune function and brain health. In fact, the gut and brain are closely connected on a physical and biochemical level. Therefore, it’s essential that our gut microbiome is healthy and thriving to keep ourselves as healthy as possible.
What are prebiotics?
Prebiotics are a type of fiber found in plant foods that humans cannot digest. But, the microorganisms within our gut microbiome rely on these prebiotics for survival. Prebiotics are the food which gut bacteria need to survive and thrive.
Basically, the prebiotic fibers travel undigested through the gut all the way to the colon, where the microorganisms live. Here, they are able to feed off the prebiotic fiber for energy.
When you eat a lot of fiber-rich prebiotics, your gut bacteria produce short chain fatty acids. These important compounds help reduce inflammation, and may reduce the risk of inflammatory diseases.
Food sources of prebiotics
Prebiotics are found in fibrous plant foods, like fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. Some commonly found sources include:
Prebiotics may also be added to foods during the fortification process, including baby formula, cereals, and breads. If you see the ingredients inulin, chicory root, oligofructose, galactooligosaccharides, or fructooligosaccharides on a food label, these are added prebiotics.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are living bacteria and yeast that provide health benefits. Probiotics help maintain a flourishing and balanced gut microbiome. When we consume probiotics, the hope is that they help improve and restore the gut microbiome.
Other purported health benefits of probiotics include improved immune system, reduced cholesterol, treatment of IBS symptoms, and aiding digestion (2).
There are hundreds of different probiotic species, but the two most commonly found in foods and supplements are Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus. Each of these species contains several strains within them.
Food sources of probiotics
You’ll find probiotics in foods prepared by the bacterial fermentation process. These foods inlcude:
You’ll also find lots of probiotic supplements available, in both powder and pill form.
Prebiotics and probiotics in the diet vs supplements
Now that you know the difference between prebiotics and probiotics and their benefits, what is the best way to get them? There’s no recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for prebiotics and probiotics, so how do you know if you are getting enough?
For most people, a diet abundant in plants + regular intake of fermented foods is enough to get the benefits of prebiotics and probiotics. Remember that fiber = prebiotics, and fiber is only found in plant foods. Daily fiber intake recommendations are 25 grams for women and 30-38 grams for men.
Eat a wide variety of plant-based foods at each meal for prebiotic benefits, as well as fermented foods. What does this look like? Here’s an example day of eating that includes lots of prebiotic and probiotics:
Breakfast: Oatmeal topped with chia seeds, walnuts, sliced banana, and blueberries
Lunch: Whole wheat avocado toast with sliced tomatoes, arugula, sauerkraut, and hard boiled eggs
Snack: Apple and cup of plain Greek yogurt
Dinner: Vegetarian chili made with tomatoes, onion, garlic, and beans. Top with plain yogurt instead of sour cream.
If you have certain medical or digestive conditions, you may benefit from prebiotic and/or probiotic supplementation. Research reveals some benefits for probiotic supplementation in the following conditions:
Because each person’s microbiome is different, probiotic supplementation is complicated. It’s impossible to know what probiotic supplement strains will work with your individual microbiome makeup, so it might take some trial and error to find one that helps.
Prebiotic supplements are a little different. They’re made of fiber, usually in the form of inulin or chicory root. Since we know that fiber feeds our gut microbes, a prebiotic fiber supplement is just additional food for them. If you are unable to get adequate fiber from food in your diet, it might be a good idea to supplement prebiotics.
With all supplements, though, make sure you get them from a trusted source. Supplements in the US are not regulated by the FDA, so seek out products that have been third-party tested to verify accuracy and proof that the product contains what it says it does. Check out U.S. Pharmacopeia, NSF International, and Consumer Lab for this information.
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