Prebiotics: How To Feed Your Friendly Bacteria
You’re probably familiar with the term probiotic (beneficial bacteria), but may be less familiar with the term prebiotic. Your body was designed with a need for both. Prebiotics are a source of fuel for probiotics, and are made from the soluble fiber in plant food.
From the very beginning of life, both probiotics and prebiotics play an important role in human health. Probiotics are closely associated with immune function. They also influence digestion, stress resilience, mood, and overall wellbeing. Babies get probiotics from their mothers’ breast milk. Not surprisingly, breast milk also contains prebiotics, which provide food for the probiotics.
Are You Getting Enough Fiber In Your Diet?
A healthy diet can provide the prebiotics we need – if we’re eating right. The World Health Organization recommends that adults consume 25-35 grams of fiber per day. Most Americans fall well short of that goal. We’ve always known fiber is good for us; now we have a better understanding as to why. There are two types of dietary fiber, soluble and insoluble. Here we’re going to focus on soluble fiber.
Soluble fiber is an important source of prebiotics. Soluble fiber is not digested in the stomach. Rather, it passes through the stomach and small intestine to the colon. There, good bacteria (primarily two species, lactobacilli and bifidobacteria) use the prebiotic fiber as a food source, breaking it down and fermenting it. The products of that fermentation have beneficial effects on the body – such as supporting immune health, making nutrients more accessible, protecting digestive health, and even influencing mood.
Prebiotics nourish the gut bacteria, helping to establish and sustain a healthy, diverse population. If you eat a low fiber diet, you’ll have less diversity in your gut microbiome. Research shows that people with a more diverse population of gut bacteria are likely to be healthier. A study published in Nature in 2013, for example, demonstrated that individuals with more diverse strains of friendly gut bacteria were less likely to have markers for inflammation and insulin resistance. They also had better blood cholesterol profiles and were less likely to be obese.
Research and the Role of Prebiotics
Numerous studies testify to the beneficial effects of prebiotics. Research published in 2012 in the Journal of Nutrition demonstrated the role of prebiotics in gut health. Prebiotics also help mineral absorption and help with weight management. The British Journal of Nutrition reports similar benefits, as well as support for bone health and immune system health. In all cases, prebiotics change the composition of gut bacteria, helping to increase the good strains and decrease the less desirable strains.
Deciphering the Label
If you’ve ever seen prebiotics listed on a supplement label, you know how confusing it can be. There are several different categories of prebiotics. Oligofructose (also called fructooligosaccharide, or FOS) ferments quickly, on the right side of colon. Inulin ferments more slowly, on the left side of the colon. Some probiotic formulas offer a full-spectrum prebiotic, called oligofructose-enriched inulin, that feeds friendly bacteria throughout the colon.
Some of the best dietary sources of prebiotic fiber include raw chicory root, raw Jerusalem artichokes, raw garlic, raw leeks, raw or cooked onions, raw dandelion greens, and whole wheat flour. If you aren’t consuming these regularly, consider taking a prebiotic supplement, or a probiotic that includes prebiotics in the formula.