Some words that have been cropping up a lot lately when it comes to health and nutrition are “prebiotics” and “probiotics.” Both are essential when it comes to supporting a healthy gut, or digestive tract. We don’t always think much about our guts, but we should, since a lot of research shows that a healthy gut can yield a lot of health benefits, and maybe even ward off some diseases.
Meet your microbiome
You might feel uncomfortable to realize that there are trillions of microbes (bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites) living in our bodies. This is called the microbiome. Most of these microbes live in the small and large intestines. If we’re in good health, these “bugs” get along with each other pretty well — even microbes that are potentially dangerous play well in the sandbox with the helpful microbes as long as things stay in balance, or a state called symbiosis. But, if this balance is disrupted, called dysbiosis, by an infection, an unhealthful diet, or certain medications (notably, antibiotics and immunosuppressive drugs), that’s when certain diseases and disorders can set in. These may include:
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Peptic ulcer disease
- Celiac disease
- Gastrointestinal cancers
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain good, live bacteria. Keep in mind that good bacteria live in your gut, but also in your mouth, urinary tract, vagina — even in your lungs and on your skin! This is a good thing because they help support your immune system and a healthy digestive tract and maybe help ward off a host of other problems as mentioned in the list, above.
Foods that contain probiotics include:
- Yogurt (dairy and nondairy) that contains “live cultures” or “active cultures”
- Kefir, a probiotic milk drink
- Acidophilus milk
- Kombucha, a fermented tea drink
- Miso, a paste made from fermented soybeans
- Tempeh, a soy product with a firm texture
- Kimchi, a Korean dish made from fermented vegetables
- Fermented pickles
Probiotics are also available as a supplement in the form of capsules, pills, powders, and liquids. Supplements may contain one or many different strains of probiotics. They’re generally considered to be safe, but you should not give these to infants, and you should not take these without first checking with your doctor if you have:
- A weakened immune system or an autoimmune disorder
- A serious illness
- Recently had surgery
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What are prebiotics?
Prebiotics are substances that naturally occur in plant foods. Basically, they are types of fiber that the body doesn’t digest. Also, many foods that are high in fiber act as prebiotics in the gut. Fiber affects the type and amount of microbes in the intestines. Fiber is broken down and fermented by these microbes, and short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) are formed, as a result. SCFAs lower the pH of the colon and limit the growth of harmful bacteria (e.g., Clostridium difficile). So, prebiotics help to promote increased levels of SCFAs which, in turn, help support overall health.
Food sources of prebiotics include:
- Raw garlic
- Raw onions and scallions
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Sweet potatoes and yams
- Dandelion greens
- Chicory root
- Legumes (e.g., beans, lentils, chickpeas)
Additional sources of prebiotics
Other sources of prebiotics include inulin, fructooligosaccharides, maltodextrin, and polydextrose. These may be added to foods and can also be found in some supplements.
If you are eating foods high in fiber — fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans – you likely don’t need to take a prebiotic supplement. Remember that the recommended fiber goal is aiming for about 25 to 35 grams of fiber each day. In fact, a healthy microbiome starts with foods that are prebiotics. It’s always best to get your prebiotics and probiotics from food sources, but if you choose to take a supplement:
- Discuss it with your healthcare provider first.
- Choose supplements that have a seal of approval from agencies such as U.S. Pharmacopeia, Consumer Lab, or NSF International.
- Choose a probiotic with at least one billion colony forming units (CFU) and containing Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, or Saccharomyces boulardii strains.
- Note that prebiotic supplements are best taken with food.
- Also be aware that prebiotic supplements may cause gas, bloating, and cramps. Start with a small dose (e.g., try half the amount) and then if you tolerate that, increase to the full dose.
- If you don’t tend to consume foods containing probiotics, look for a symbiotic blend, which contains both pre- and probiotics.
- Read the instructions carefully, and if you have any allergies, check for ingredients such as gluten, soy, eggs, dairy, or lactose.
- Stop taking the supplement(s) if you have side effects that don’t go away or that are severe, such as diarrhea, gas, bloating, skin rash, or itchiness, and consult your doctor.