Prebiotics make it all possible by feeding the good bacteria in your gut.
The last few weeks, I've been writing about the benefits of probiotics. And because they do so much for our health, we can't forget to feed them to receive maximum benefit.
That's where prebiotics come in!
Prebiotics are defined as anything that feeds the beneficial bacteria in your gut, or stimulates the growth of probiotic bacteria in a way that improves health.
Prebiotics are soluble fibers that your body can't digest, so they pass through your stomach and small intestine to your large intestine, or colon where they are available for the good bacteria. Yes, the large intestine is one and the same as the colon! In the colon, the prebiotics are fermented by the beneficial bacteria.
In this way, they produce the byproducts your body needs, such as short-chain fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals.
Benefits of Prebiotics
By definition, prebiotics exclusively benefit the good guys.
There are so many benefits to eating prebiotic rich foods that I won't be able to list them all. The benefits of prebiotics are linked to the benefits of probiotics, the two together being greater than the sum of the parts.
Also, the research and study of probiotics (and probiotics) are in there infancy, so there is new information coming out all the time!
Prebiotics improve gut health and digestion.
Prebiotics lower the pH of the intestines by feeding the bacteria that produce lactic acid. The low pH helps to ward off pathogens that tend to grow in higher pH environments. Note that we want acid (low pH) in our digestive system, but we want the rest of our body to have an alkaline (higher pH).
When prebiotics help the good bacteria to proliferate, they produce anti-bacterial molecules that ward off the bad bacteria.
According to a 2012 report published in the Journal of Nutrition, prebiotics along with probiotics, can help treat many digestive problems, including:
Because prebiotics feed the beneficial bacteria in your digestive system, they help to balance the harmful bacteria and toxins.
Prebiotics also metabolize the non-digestable fibers from your food, creating short-chain fatty acids that help our digestive system. For example, butyric acid is produced by some prebiotics, which improves the health of your intestinal lining.
Short-chain fatty acids also help regulate electrolyte levels in the body, including sodium, magnesium, calcium, and water, which is important for proper digestion, including producing bowel movements and preventing diarrhea.
Prebiotics enhance immune function and help protect from cancer.
A large number of studies demonstrate that the consumption of certain prebiotic containing foods changes increases the numbers of gut bacteria (probiotics) that help improve immunity.
Prebiotic foods are also associated with a reduction of the concentration of cancer-promoting enzymes and bacterial metabolites in the gut.
Prebiotic foods lower inflammation.
As I've been writing about lately, there's more and more research coming out about chronic inflammation being the root of cause of disease. Click here for more information.
It appears that a healthier gut environment turns off auto-immune reactions, helps the body metabolize nutrients, including fats, and moderates hormonal and immune functions that control how and where the body stores fats.
People eating a diet high in fiber have a reduced risk of heart disease.
Prebiotics improve the body's ability to prevent ischemetic heart disease. These are heart problems caused by narrowed arteries. When arteries are narrowed, less blood and oxygen reaches the heart muscle.
People eating a diet rich in prebiotic containing foods also tend to have healthier cholesterol levels.
Prebiotic containing foods tend to help with weight loss or maintenance.
Higher intake of all types of fiber is linked to lower body weight and protection against obesity.
Prebiotic containing foods promote a sense of fullness or satiety, which helps spur weight loss.
They also effect hormone levels related to appetite regulation. Animals given probiotics produce less ghrelin (the hormone that signals the brain that it's time to eat).
Prebiotic containing foods help protect bone health.
A 2007 study in the journal of nutrition found that prebiotics enhanced the absorption of minerals in the body, including magnesium and possibly iron and calcium.
These minerals are crucial for retaining strong bones and preventing fractures or osteoporosis.
Prebiotic containing foods help regulate hormones and improve mood.
Research is suggesting that anxiety and depression are tied to gut health.
Your gut helps to absorb and metabolize nutrients from your foods that may be used for neurotransmitter functions that create hormones that control your mood and help lower stress.
Recent studies have demonstrated that probiotics have significant neurological-biological effects in the human brain, for example, lowering cortisol levels and thus, the body's stress response.
Which foods contain prebiotics?
Please note: If you have severe gut dysbiosis, SIBO (small intestine bacteria overgrowth), IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), or are on a low-FODMAP diet, you should not take prebiotics until your gut is stronger.
Also, anyone may experience some side effects, which may include gas, bloating, or digestive discomfort. It's normal for the first few days, but if it goes on longer, you may want to back off a little until you achieve more balance.
All fruits and vegetables, and foods containing insoluble fiber have the potential to be prebiotic.
I will leave wheat out because while whole wheat is a great source of insoluble fiber, it also contains gluten, which irritates the gut lining of people with a sensitivity to it. It's not everyone, but I think there's a strong enough association that if you're having any symptoms of chronic inflammation or digestive upset, it's best to leave it out, at least until you feel like you've addressed the symptoms.
The most effective and most studied type of prebiotic soluble fibers are those containing inulin.
You might see inulin as a food additive on processed food labels. Because it's gone through an extraction process, it doesn't have the same health benefits as inulin found in whole foods. Even if you're looking for a supplement, look for one with whole foods in a concentrated form such as chicory root.
Also, if you're taking a prebiotic in supplement form, a powder is more advantagous, so you avoid your body doing the extra work to break down a capsule.
Get all you can from real foods, though, because real foods have multiple benefits, even some we may not know about yet.
Some of the foods listed below contain more inulin when they are raw. If you don't normally eat them raw, try them chopped or grated on a salad or in a sauce. Many of them can also be fermented which confers even more health benefits. Some of them can also be put into a smoothie.
See my Farmer's Market Friday page for more information on the health benefits of whole foods.
Fruits and veggies that are high in prebiotics (especially inulin).
Do you have additional ways that you like to prepare the prebiotic foods listed above?
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If you'd like to access my Farmer's Market Friday posts from 2018, click here!