Probiotics and prebiotics have continued to be hot health buzzwords over the last couple of years. And why shouldn’t they be? Research is continually emerging, and they both provide numerous health benefits when it comes to gut health. It can be challenging to sift through information on the internet when a vast number of sites are simply trying to sell you a supplement, without providing information on getting pro and prebiotics through their natural source – food!
What are probiotics and prebiotics?
Probiotics are live and active bacteria living in our digestive system. While bacteria historically have received a damaging reputation, it’s essential to realize that not all bacteria is harmful! Scientists have discovered we need bacteria to survive. And when it comes to the gut, we need a lot of it – up to 4 pounds per person!
Our good bacteria is our best friend when it comes to many functions in our gut. They protect us against pathogens, synthesize vitamins, digest foods, and keep our immune system healthy. The bacteria we think of as bad can coexist nicely with the good bacteria. It’s when there is an imbalance, called dysbiosis, in which problems arise. Dysbiosis is associated with irritable bowel disorder, inflammatory skin diseases, autoimmune arthritis, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and atherosclerosis.
Prebiotics are complex plant-based sugars. They act as food for our probiotics, nourishing, and promoting the growth of probiotics in the gastrointestinal tract. Prebiotics work to help protect the digestive system.
Probiotic and Prebiotic Foods
Many foods that are considered probiotics are fermented. But it’s essential to recognize that not all fermented foods are probiotics, and not all probiotics are fermented foods. For instance, bread, beer, wine, and distilled alcoholic beverages are made by fermentation, but the live bacteria are removed by filters or heat. To be considered a probiotic, the bacteria must be alive!
Probiotic foods work to increase the beneficial gut bacteria, which helps with digestion, immune function, and alleviation of gastrointestinal intolerances. Probiotics can are in foods like cultured dairy products such as yogurt kefir, miso, and tempeh. They are also found in fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut, olives, pickles, and kimchi. One thing to note is fermented vegetables are only probiotics if they are fermented in salt, not vinegar. Look for the words “naturally fermented” on the label and bubbles in the liquid when you open the jar. Probiotics will typically be in the refrigerated section of the grocery store.
Most prebiotics are a type of dietary fiber, although only soluble fiber is a prebiotic. Soluble fiber is “soluble” in water and forms a gel-like substance in your digestive tract, which cannot digest without the help of probiotics, which work to break it down.
You can find prebiotics in foods such as onions, garlic, bananas, asparagus, leeks, avocado, honey, dandelion greens, and legumes. Some people have a hard time digesting prebiotic foods. If you’re not currently consuming any prebiotics in your diet, it’s best to start in small and allow the gut to adapt. It also can help to cook prebiotics if you continue to have issues.
What about supplements?
It’s always best to get your pro and prebiotics from food versus taking a supplement. They are often sold separately or are combined in the same product and called a symbiotic. The issue with supplements is that researchers still don’t know exactly what makes a good pro or prebiotic supplement. Everyone’s gut bacteria is as unique as a fingerprint. This makes it difficult to know what strains of bacteria are best, the correct dosage, and who is best suited to take a supplement.
The Food and Drug Administration also does not regulate supplements, and there’s no generic equivalence, so one product, even if it contains the same species, cannot be considered the same. It’s been found that supplement ranges of bacteria in each serving range from 100 million to 1.8 trillion! Also, the quality doesn’t go through the rigorous process that the foods we eat go through, so you may not know what you’re getting.
There is always a chance of not getting what is listed on the label as far as microorganisms and other quality issues. While there is still a lack of research on probiotic supplements, they are considered generally safe. Always talk with your doctor before taking any supplements.