The gut is home to trillions of bacteria, known as the gut microbiome, which works in harmony to help keep us healthy.
A balanced gut microbiome is a key to many health benefits, including a strong immune system, healthy skin, good digestion, weight management, and disease protection.
Prebiotics and probiotics can help balance and support the function of a healthy gut. We’ll take a look at exactly what they are, where to find them, and how they can benefit the body from the inside out.
What are prebiotics?
Not to be confused with their friend the probiotics, prebiotics aren’t bacteria at all, but a type of dietary fiber that acts as food for the bacteria.
Prebiotics contain a form of fiber that is indigestible by the body but provides key nutrients for beneficial bacteria to feed on.
They help the bacteria in our digestive tract grow in volume, which in turn aids digestion and enhances the absorption of essential vitamins and minerals.
Food sources of prebiotics
Eat a diet rich in prebiotic foods for optimum health. The following foods are good prebiotic sources:
- whole grains
A study review of prebiotics and their potential benefits found that “consuming prebiotics can improve immunity functions by increasing the population of protective microorganisms.” In both animal and human studies, prebiotics were shown to decrease the harmful bacteria’s population by increasing good bacteria.
In another study, researchers concluded that fiber-rich prebiotic foods had an array of health benefits, including promoting the growth of good gut bacteria, alleviating constipation, reducing IBS symptoms, and possibly preventing traveler’s diarrhea.
One benefit that prebiotics have over probiotics is that they are more stable, unaffected by high temperatures and long-term storage. They reach their desired destination of the colon without being negatively affected by the acidic stomach, as some probiotics can be.
What are probiotics?
It’s a little known fact that 80% of the immune system can be found in the gut.
Lifestyle factors, including diet, stress, and antibiotic use, can disrupt the gut microbiome’s delicate balance, leading to bloating, poor digestion, and even mood and skin imbalances.
Probiotics are living microorganisms that can help boost the friendly bacteria living in the digestive system when taken in food or supplement form. There are countless types, all playing different roles within the body — but two of the most common are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
Food sources of probiotics
Including the following foods and drinks can help increase the friendly bacteria within your digestive system:
Potential health benefits of probiotics
Let’s look at some of the ways increasing your intake of probiotics can have positive health benefits:
1. Digestive issues
Taking a probiotic may help reduce symptoms of digestive issues such as bloating and constipation. They also help us absorb the nutrients from our food, which can then be turned into vital energy.
1,531 sufferers of IBS reported positive improvements in their symptoms compared to a placebo, leading researchers to conclude that probiotics appear to be efficacious in treating the condition, but further research is needed into the most effective strains.
Antibiotics kill harmful bacteria that make us sick but have the unfortunate side effect of wiping out good bacteria along with the bad, sometimes resulting in antibiotic-associated diarrhea.
A review into studies on the subject concluded that there was indeed evidence that the use of a probiotic reduced the associated diarrhea after antibiotic use in both adults and children, without adverse reactions.
2. Immune health
By inhibiting harmful bacteria’s growth, it’s thought that probiotics may be beneficial to the immune system. Some probiotics have been shown to promote the production of the body’s natural antibodies and immune cells, which help us fight sickness, disease, and infection.
In a study of 18 day-care centers in Finland, children taking probiotic milk experienced fewer days of absence due to illness than those in a control group, showing that there may be a link to probiotics and the immune system.
100 women who frequently suffered from urinary tract infections were given either a probiotic or a placebo daily for five days, then once weekly for ten days. The group who took the probiotic experienced fewer recurrences of UTIs than the control group, and researchers felt that larger-scale additional trials would give similar results.
3. Weight loss
Our microbiome can influence our weight and have suggested that a microbial imbalance could be a contributing factor to obesity.
Preliminary studies were carried out involving probiotic supplementation, which may have a positive effect on weight control. The research is still in its early stages, and further trials will need to be carried out to find out just how much of an impact probiotics could have on weight.
Both prebiotics and probiotics come with a range of benefits, especially for a healthy digestive and immune system.
Both can be found in food sources, but if you are taking antibiotics or suffer from digestive issues, including IBS, bloating, or diarrhea, supplements may help.