In this article:
- The difference between prebiotics and probiotics
- Health benefits of prebiotics and probiotics
- Foods and supplements for gut health
How strange it is to think that our "second brain" is in our gut. It's even stranger to think that this brain isn't run entirely by us - it's operated by trillions of microorganisms like bacteria and fungi that are hanging out in our gut! These gut bacteria exist in the lower half of the gastrointestinal tract and determine what can pass through the intestinal walls and be absorbed by the body. However, not all bacteria are created equally. Helpful bacteria strengthen the intestinal wall, digest your food, and nourish your body. Harmful bacteria, however, can lead to an unhealthy gut and cause constipation, unexplained weight fluctuation, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), bloating and inflammation, heartburn, or leaky gut syndrome. A healthy gut teeming with good bacteria is crucial to your overall health, not just for your digestive system.
Maintaining and fortifying these healthy bacteria starts by feeding yourself the right things. Probiotics are strains of live bacteria that can be found in certain foods and supplements. These are the"good" types of bacteria.
Prebiotics on the other hand serve as a source of food for these beneficial bacteria. Prebiotics are mostly found in carbohydrates, AKA prebiotic fibers, that cannot be digested by the human body and instead are fermented within the gut. When good bacteria eats prebiotics, it turns them into short-chain fatty acids which promote a strong gut barrier.
The saying "you are what you eat" is true for our overall health and specifically our gut health. When we eat processed foods that are high in sugar and fat, it feeds the bad bacteria in our gut and can lead to gut dysbiosis, as well as many of the inflammatory conditions mentioned above. However, when we feed our bodies prebiotic-rich foods or prebiotic supplements, it encourages probiotic growth and intestinal fortification. Prebiotics and probiotics go hand in hand - you need both.
Probiotic supplements and probiotic-rich foods help to maintain our body’s balance of good and bad bacteria which keeps our digestive tract healthy. Digestive issues, such as IBS for example, often occur due to gut dysbiosis, or an imbalance in the good vs bad bacteria. Probiotics can help to support digestive health by fighting inflammation, reducing gas, preventing and treating diarrhea, slowing the growth of disease-causing bacteria, and decreasing the need for frequent bowel movements.
Since the majority of the body's serotonin is produced in the gut, prebiotics (aka healthy gut microbiota) can also help to reduce inflammation that can lead to mood swings, Alzheimer's, depression, anxiety, and autism. Probiotics may also help to fight infections like UTIs and respiratory infections by supporting our immune system and preventing harmful bacteria from permeating the intestinal walls.
Both probiotics and prebiotics are also essential during pregnancy! Maintaining a healthy gut during pregnancy is crucial for mother and child. In addition to the benefits listed above (such as reducing inflammation, gas, diarrhea, etc.) there may also be evidence that suggests probiotics may reduce the child’s risk of allergies. Either through probiotic-rich foods or probiotic supplements, this may help to decrease the risk of preeclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy) and eczema as well. According to the American Pregnancy Association, probiotics are probably safe during pregnancy, but cannot be declared safe completely due to limited research. As always, diet should be the first source of prebiotic and probiotics, and supplements second.
There are many different food sources of both prebiotics and probiotics, but they might not be your typical pantry-staples. Probiotic foods go hand in hand with fermentation. Fermented foods contain many different vitamins, beneficial enzymes, and gut-healing probiotics. These include sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, kombucha, tempeh, miso, natto (fermented soybeans), and yogurt. Many prebiotic foods are considered synbiotic, as they also contain probiotics. These inulin fiber-rich foods include whole grains, artichokes, leeks, chicory root, garlic, onions, bananas, and beans.
If these foods are hard to come by in your everyday diet, probiotic and prebiotic supplements are also a good choice. Probiotic supplements will often contain many different strains of bacteria, but the most common and widely researched categories are bifidobacterium and lactobacillus. Some products cannot make it past your stomach acid or reach your gut, making them totally ineffective. Others, if they do reach the gut, don't have anything to feed on. For this reason, you should still consume as many prebiotic-rich foods as possible or take both a probiotic and prebiotic supplement together. For specific medical advice or product suggestions, you should always consult your doctor or a dietitian.
Other supplements known to support gut health and reduce inflammation are collagen and glutathione. Collagen, the most abundant protein in the human body, is crucial to strengthening and restoring the gut lining. Glutathione is known as the body’s master antioxidant that helps to fight gut-damaging free radicals found in processed foods. It also helps to manage inflammation. If you're looking for a superpower recipe, you can try making dishes that contain both pre/probiotic-rich foods and add collagen or glutathione. For example, try out some Coconut Chutney or Lemon-Ginger Kombucha. As always, before you add any supplement to your diet, talk to your doctor to help identify gaps in your diet and ways to treat your symptoms and heal your gut with proper exercise, diet, and supplements!