We often hear of the potential role of probiotics in our maintaining a healthy gut, but a diet rich in prebiotics is probably a better long-term solution
Probiotics and Prebiotics- what's the difference?
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that can be cultured in food or taken as a supplement to counteract the growth of yeasts and other harmful bacteria. Most probiotics on the market are live bacteria that act as ideal guests in the gut- they come in, help out in any way they can and then leave. These probiotics will need to be taken every day. Some probiotics come in spore form (not live) and are known to be better at surviving stomach acids and colonizing the gut and regulating bacterial populations. For both of these types of probiotics to work well it can be helpful to provide prebiotic food that will allow them to proliferate.
Prebiotics are fermentable fibres that can't be absorbed during digestion and instead travel to the colon and feed the bacteria. Prebiotics are known to provide energy for beneficial bacteria like bifidobacteria or lactobacillus. One of the main features of the bacteria that they feed is that they produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that are vital to our health. Adequate probiotic consumption can be achieved by eating a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, however you can also buy prebiotic supplements.
What are SCFAs and why are they important?
SCFAs are produced by certain types of bacteria after they have consumed prebiotic fibres. SCFAs serve many important functions:
provide energy to the epithelial cells in the intestine thereby improving the integrity of the tissues
provide energy to other cells in the body
improve immune function
regulate water absorption
regulate absorption of key minerals like calcium
inhibit pathogen growth by lowering the pH in the gut and creating the ideal environment for healthy bacteria to grow
help in regulating gene expression
stimulate hormones and peptide
prevent neurodegeneration and support the growth of brain cells
Do prebiotics also feed bad bacteria?
Some believe that we want to avoid certain prebiotics because they allow harmful bacteria to grow. This concept of good bacteria vs bad bacteria is a misconception. While there are certain species of bacteria that are pathogenic, many of the bacteria in our gut are only harmful because they have been able to proliferate due to a lack of competition from other bacteria. This imbalance in the gut is what we call dysbiosis. The main causes of dysbiosis are poor diet, antibiotics, daily intake of pharmaceuticals, and a high-stress lifestyle. Many people with IBS will notice that they experience less digestive discomfort when eating a diet with less prebiotic fibres. The reason for this is that prebiotics are fermentable fibre and if we don't have proper gut motility or enough SCFA-producing bacteria in the gut the fibres will ferment a produce gases that will cause discomfort. In this case, it is better to use a probiotic to begin with and very slowly incorporate prebiotics back into the diet.
When should I take a probiotic or prebiotic supplement?
If you're dealing with an auto-immune disease, IBS or chronic inflammation, it may be a good idea to take a probiotic as part of a long-term plan. But for most people eating a healthy diet with a focus on prebiotic fibres will help maintain balance in the the GI tract.
You may want to supplement with prebiotics as a second step in rebalancing the gut after you've introduced a probiotic.
What are some prebiotic-rich foods?
You may find that when you add more prebiotic-rich foods in your diet you experience some digestive discomfort- you want go slowly, allowing time for your microbiome to adjust.
Research on the health benefits of probiotics suggest that they reduce inflammation in the body, protect against colon cancer, enhance the bioavailability of nutrients, lower the risk of heart disease and promote satiation and weight loss- all very good reasons to be including probiotics in your diet.