Prebiotics are forms of dietary fiber you can obtain from a variety of different foods and from supplements.
This type of fiber plays an important role in good health by supporting and enhancing the activity of the probiotic bacteria living in the guts.
In order to understand why prebiotics are important, it’s necessary to first realize the important role probiotics play within the intestinal tract and how their activity benefits the overall health.
What Is Probiotic Bacteria and Why Does It Need Prebiotics?
Probiotic bacteria is a term that encompasses certain bacteria that lives in the intestines. The intestines contain a lot of different strains of bacteria.
Some types can harm the health, others are beneficial. The “good” type of bacteria is known as probiotic bacteria. It’s also sometimes referred to as flora.
The good and bad bacteria in the guts are like two opposing forces in a war. When the bad bacteria starts to gain ground it can impact the health in many negative ways.
Diarrhea, weight gain, fatigue, and skin problems are just a few of the problems that may result from a build-up of bad bacteria in the gut.
When the intestines contain more good bacteria than bad bacteria it improves gut health, enforces the immune system and provides other health benefits that contribute to a sense of greater well-being.
Although probiotic bacteria occurs naturally within the digestive tract, certain foods, such as feta cheese and sauerkraut, contain it too. Eating such food increases the amount of good bacteria present in the intestines by adding more.
Consuming probiotic food, drinks, and supplements is a good way to top up your levels of good bacteria. Doing so has become an increasingly popular practice in recent years.
Consuming prebiotic food and supplements is another way to increase the amount of probiotic bacteria present in the guts. Like any other organism, bacteria has to be fed. Prebiotics feed probiotic bacteria, thereby helping it to multiply.
What’s So Special about Prebiotic Fiber?
Although all forms of dietary fiber are good for the health, not all fiber is prebiotic.
The body cannot digest prebiotic fiber. What the body cannot use, the probiotic bacteria can. When it enters the intestines the bacteria feasts on it and multiplies.
In order to be classed as a prebiotic, fiber has to be able to resist small-intestinal absorption, be fermented by probiotic bacteria, and stimulate its growth.
If your diet lacks enough of this type of important fiber, the amount of good bacteria present in the intestines may dwindle and your health will suffer.
Although probiotic bacteria gets all the glory, prebiotics are the important silent partner that helps make everything possible.
By enhancing probiotic activity in the way that they do, prebiotics can support good health in numerous ways.
Some examples include:
- Improves nutrient absorption
- Reduces levels of potentially pathogenic bacteria
- Increases the metabolism
- Promotes fat loss
- Increases energy
- Improves immune function
- Reduces inflammation
- Supports healthy bowel action
The fact that prebiotics are a form of fiber also gives them value in other areas. For instance, food that is high in fiber helps fill the stomach, satiate the appetite, and prevent hunger cravings. [SOURCE 1, SOURCE 2]
It’s also important to remember the foods that provide prebiotics are generally a good source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients. They are not solely prebiotic fiber. The fiber is what is left when all the other nutrients have been digested. Prebiotic food also tends to be very low in fat.
In short, the foods that provide prebiotic fiber tend to be healthy options that can support good health in many ways. They do much more than feed probiotic bacteria so it’s important not to underestimate their value or sell them short.
Prebiotics + Probiotics = Postbiotics
As far as the pecking order goes, probiotics have always been the big star when it comes to gut health. Then prebiotics gradually nudged their way into the scene. More recently, researchers have discovered a new name in gut health—postbiotics.
Postbiotics are the metabolic byproducts probiotic bacteria produces while feeding on prebiotic fiber.
It appears some of these byproducts such as butryate (a major energy source for the colon), may actually be responsible for some of the benefits that have previously been directly attributed to probiotics.
Hydrogen peroxide is another postbiotic compound that appears to offer value to the health. It’s produced by the Lactobacillus johnsonii strain of bacteria and research suggests it kills salmonella.
So, it appears the way probiotics work may not be as clear-cut as it appears. It’s also apparent there’s a need for a lot more research into the complex subject of gut bacteria and how it affects the overall health. [SOURCE 3, SOURCE 4, SOURCE 5]
Examples of Prebiotics – Natural Sources
Prebiotic foods are plant-based. So vegans and vegetarians are likely to already be getting enough of this valuable form of natural fiber.
Some good prebiotic foods include:
- Apple cider vinegar
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Whole wheat products
So, when your mother told you it was important you eat all your greens it was good advice.
A Closer Look at Inulin and FOS
There’s more than one type of prebiotic fiber. That’s why you may encounter a lot of talk about inulin and FOS.
Inulin is a water-soluble fiber that’s low in calories. Chicory and Jerusalem artichoke are particularly good sources of inulin.
|Inulin / 100g|
FOS (fructooligosaccharides) is also known as oligofructose and oligofructan. So, if you encounter any of these names they refer to the same thing. Due to its sweet-tasting nature, FOS has value as an artificial sweetener and is slightly different from inulin on a molecular level.
Most of the FOS and inulin manufacturers add to supplements is extracted from chicory roots or manufactured from sucrose.
In recent years, a high performance (HP) form of inulin has become available. It’s a synthetic ingredient that’s less sweet but has more power.
However, although many pill type supplements may use synthetic ingredients, most of the better shake-type supplements and health drinks contain natural ingredients. For this reason, they offer higher nutritional value and are arguably a better option.
Prebiotic Suitability and Side Effects
Prebiotic foods and supplements are extremely healthy and good for the body. However, a certain amount of discretion is necessary. Going overboard and overdoing it with prebiotics can cause excess build-ups of intestinal gas. Bloating and some degree of stomach discomfort may also be possible.
People who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or other intestinal conditions will need to use prebiotics with extra care.
Before making major changes to the diet or using supplements for the first time it’s always a good idea to consult a doctor first. This is especially important for anyone who has existing health problems or concerns.
In some ways, consuming more prebiotic food and/or using prebiotic products could be seen as being a more natural option than probiotic products. Instead of adding extra bacteria to the gut, they help the intestines to produce more of their own.
However, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that many foods, such as feta cheese and sauerkraut contains probiotic bacteria.
People were eating probiotic food long before it became trendy to do so. Although eating too much high-fat cheese too often may not be a healthy thing to do, eating either option is not generally frowned upon. So there is nothing wrong with the idea of consuming probiotic bacteria.
Consuming prebiotic food and supplements is one way to boost good bacteria levels in the gut. Probiotics is another. It’s also possible to consume the prebiotics and probiotics together and many people do so. Of course, it’s important to remember there is no substitute for a healthy, well-balanced diet.
What are prebiotics?
A prebiotic is any food or supplement that provides indigestible fiber that feeds the probiotic bacteria in the gut.
Are prebiotics the same as probiotics?
No. “Probiotics” is an umbrella term for the various different types of beneficial bacteria present in the gut. “Prebiotics” refers to the natural fiber that feeds the bacteria and helps it to multiply.
Can you take prebiotics and probiotics together?
Yes. In fact, there is a lot to be said for doing so. That’s why some supplements contain both. When you take probiotics you are increasing the amount of good bacteria present in your gut. By taking prebiotics at the same time you are providing the bacteria with the food it needs to multiply quickly, thereby enhancing the overall benefits.
Why do people take prebiotic supplements?
People take prebiotic supplements to boost the activity of gut-friendly bacteria. Research suggests increasing probiotic bacteria may offer numerous health benefits. This “probiotic” bacteria thrives best when it has an ample supply of food. Prebiotic supplements provide the special type of fiber the bacteria feeds upon.
Is it safe to take prebiotics during pregnancy?
Unless you have a gut-related health problem, such as IBS, there is no reason why you should not add more prebiotic foods to your diet. However, it would be wise to consult a doctor before using any brand of prebiotic supplement. Some supplements may contain additional ingredients, such as colorants, that may make them a poor choice for use during pregnancy.
Are there any reasons to take prebiotics during pregnancy?
Apart from nourishing the good bacteria in the gut, prebiotic foods are also rich in vitamins and minerals that can support the good health of mother and child. Prebiotic supplements may offer benefit too, but should not be used without a doctor’s approval.
Due to the fact that they increase levels of good bacteria, prebiotics may offer additional benefits. Probiotic bacteria are also active in other areas of the body, including the vagina. Babies who are born via vaginal delivery gain exposure to this bacteria. This exposure may give the child’s immune system a head start.
Does breast milk contain prebiotics?
Yes. As well as providing prebiotics, breast milk is also a source of probiotic bacteria called Human Milk Oligosaccharides (HMOs).
How do I prevent flatulence while using prebiotics?
Any intestinal gas that builds up is likely to be due to the increase in probiotic bacteria. The best way to prevent flatulence from becoming a problem is to gradually increase extra fiber to the diet over a period of days. This gives the intestines the extra time they need to adapt.
Should I use prebiotics after a colon cleanse?
Cleansing the colon purges the body of a lot of the bacteria prebiotics increase, so getting more prebiotics into your body is a very good idea. However, unless your doctor has recommended otherwise, a better idea is not to cleanse your colon at all.
What is gut microbiota?
Gut microbiota is a term that encompasses all the bacteria and other microbes that live within the digestive tract. Some of the bacteria are good, others are bad. Prebiotics help increase the presence of the good kind.