Prebiotics and Probiotics 101
First and foremost, prebiotics are NOT probiotics! Probiotics are fragile, misunderstood and often hard to find in comparison to the more durable prebiotics. Now, don’t think that probiotics are useless – they are effective at dealing with gastrointestinal problems and are believed to promote overall well-being. Sure, probiotics are easily killed by stomach acid, but the benefits of taking probiotics make the trial and error worthwhile.
So, then, what is a prebiotic?
“The prebiotic is a specialized plant fiber that beneficially nourishes the good bacteria already in the large bowel or colon.” Prebiotics can be understood as a type of fertilizer for probiotic bacteria already present in the gut. With the fertilizing assistance of prebiotics, probiotics are better able to reproduce and multiply to inhabit the gut and fight off bad bacteria. Not only do prebiotics promote growth of beneficial gut microbes, but they also help maintain the beneficial microbes already present. Therefore, both probiotics and prebiotics help support your gut health.
How’s it work?
Interesting Fact: “About 90% of prebiotic fiber makes it through the small intestine intact.”
You might now be wondering: If most of the prebiotics aren’t digested by the time they get through the small intestine, how can my body be using them?
Good question! So, our body’s natural digestive system (the host’s natural digestive system) is not able to digest prebiotics. Therefore, prebiotics pass through our digestive systems until they reach the colon. The microbes found within the colon breakdown and digest the prebiotics. The prebiotics are used as fuel – you can think of it as being a food source – for your flora (probiotics).
This sort of fuel is classified as a soluble fiber, which means it’s digested within the host, but not necessarily by the host. In the case of prebiotics, the microbes within the host digest them. Contrarily, insoluble fibers are not able to be digested by the host or by anything living within the host. Therefore, prebiotics are soluble fibers, which means our gut flora is able to consume them. Once consumed, the prebiotics are fermented by the colon’s microbial community.
The colon is incredibly important to your body’s overall functioning – mainly due to the bacteria that reside in the colon. The colon’s microbial community work to strengthen the bowel wall, aid in the regulation of hormone production, and improve mineral absorption. The roles of the probiotic bacteria in the colon provide an essential range of health benefits. However, it’s not an easy job for probiotics in the colon; they are constantly fighting off the bad bacteria that cause diseases and, at the same time, trying to increase their own population size. This is where the prebiotics come in. The prebiotics are the artillery – they come in to promote growth and strength within the probiotic communities.
Where do prebiotics come from?
There are decent amounts of prebiotics within a few servings of fruits and vegetables – it’s as simple as that! If you really want to know specifics, some of the fruits and veggies with the highest contents of prebiotics are: raw chicory root, raw Jerusalem artichoke, raw dandelion greens, raw garlic, raw leek, raw onion, cooked onion, the skin of apples, beans and raw banana.
Typically, raw fruits and vegetables are going to have significantly higher amounts of prebiotic concentrations. Cooking the fruits and vegetables reduces the concentration of prebiotic by significant amounts. Because the amount of prebiotic within each of these foods is often minimal, it is recommended for people to also consume a prebiotic dietary supplement to help make up for any dietary deficits of fiber.
(Some) Health Benefits of Prebiotics
Recent studies have shown that the amounts of probiotics and prebiotics in an individual’s gut directly impacts mental health. The balance between probiotics and prebiotics is believed to have an essential connection with the brain. As a result of this connection, individuals who eat adequate levels of both probiotics and prebiotics, and whose probiotic and prebiotic levels are proportionately balanced, are shown to have less issues with anxiety, stress, and depression than individuals who do not consume enough prebiotics and probiotics. Additionally, research has evidenced the beneficial effects that prebiotics have on the immune system, bone density, weight, appetite, and bowel regularity.