Probiotics are fascinating beneficial microbes that are essential for maintaining our health and supporting our immune system.
As research around the life giving functions performed by our friendly flora continues to take center-stage, it would be remiss to not give credit to the essential role that prebiotics play in improving and maintaining our overall health by sustaining our probiotic bacteria.
At first glance, a single vowel seems to be the only distinction between the two words, but probiotics and prebiotics are actually quite different. You see, probiotics are living organisms, while prebiotics are indigestible fibers that provide nourishment for the probiotics—much like fertilizer for a garden. While probiotics often get all the attention, prebiotics also deserve their own time in the spotlight.
Before we dive into just how important prebiotics are to your well-being and vitality, let’s take a look at how probiotics work to keep your gut happy.
Did you know that you are actually more microbial than human? We play host to trillions of microbes that live in and on our body, and collectively they make up our micro-biome.
It is now know that even the vaginal birth canal during normal delivery assists with development of our micro-biome in the newborn. The infant microbiome plays an essential role in human health and its assembly is determined by maternal– offspring exchanges of microbiota. This process is affected by several practices, including Cesarean section (C-section), perinatal antibiotics, and formula feeding, that have been linked to increased risks of metabolic and immune diseases.
Comprising thousands of different species, the bacteria that live within us (most of whom reside in our gut) provide us with an astonishing number of life-supporting benefits, from producing important vitamins and enzymes to regulating our digestion and metabolism, balancing our mood, and making sure our immune system functions optimally.
The unique composition of a person’s microbial mix begins to develop in the womb and changes through the years depending on age, diet, the environment, and many other factors, but a healthy micro-biome should always consist of at least 85% beneficial bacteria and only 15% (or less) of the inhospitable microbes that can create issues.
Unfortunately, this bacterial balance is under constant threat from many factors in our modern lifestyles, such as antibiotics both in our food and as medicine, pesticides, overzealous hygiene habits, antibacterial cleaners, and toxins and contaminants in the environment. Even stress and the aging process can dwindle the numbers of friendly flora in our gut.
The good news is that taking a daily probiotic supplement can help reinforce your delicate microbial ecosystem, so the beneficial bacteria can stay in the majority and perform at their peak. The even better news? By ensuring you have plenty of prebiotics in your life, you can further support your colonies of good guys so they can, in turn, support your health.
What Are Prebiotics?
Dietary prebiotics, typically non-digestible fiber compounds, act as food to stimulate the growth and/or activity of beneficial bacteria (such as Bifidobacteria or Lactobacillus). Natural dietary sources of prebiotic compounds include fiber rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, and unrefined grains (bran). The most common prebiotic compounds include inulin, fructooligosaccharides (FOS) and galactooligosaccharides (GOS). It has been shown that certain prebiotics, consumed in adequate amounts, can improve digestion, prevent constipation, inhibit growth of pathogenic bacteria, improve insulin and lipid metabolism, and improve absorption of certain minerals such as calcium.
Our friendly microbes rely on one specific type of sustenance to keep them going strong: prebiotic fiber.
These soluble fibers are often found in plant-based foods and are indigestible by us. In fact, what makes this type of fiber an excellent prebiotic is its ability to pass through the upper gastrointestinal tract undigested and make its way into the colon, where probiotics can ferment it to use as fuel.
So, if prebiotics only feed our gut microbes, what makes them so crucial to our well-being? Because they nourish our probiotics (like fertilizer for your gut garden), which are associated with so many health benefits, prebiotics have a somewhat indirect positive effect on our overall health and wellness.
Here are a few of prebiotic benefits:
1. Decreasing your stress. Studies show that consumption of supplemental prebiotic powder is associated with lower cortisol (the “stress” hormone) levels and better performance on emotional tests.1
2. Improving your nutrient absorption. Prebiotics can enhance magnesium and calcium absorption, boosting bone health and increasing bone density.2 Better nutrient absorption means more energy and improved vitality!
3. Helping you lose weight. Research demonstrates that prebiotic fibers can increase the hormones that tell us when we’re full (satiety hormones), thereby helping to prevent overeating that can contribute to weight gain.3
4. Optimizing your immune function. By increasing numbers of protective good guys in our gut (like Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli), prebiotics naturally support our immune function. But, some prebiotics—like acacia fiber —also nourish specific probiotic strains that use the fiber to make short-chain fatty acids like butyrate that bolster the gut barrier against hostile invaders.4
The good news is that prebiotics are beginning to make their way into the limelight as a critical component of a healthy gut.
Should You Take Probiotic and Prebiotic Supplements?
Yes! There are so many things in our modern world that deplete the good bacteria that we are meant to inherently have for optimal health. Although we can take steps to live a gut healthy life with limited exposure to microbial depleters, unless we actively and continuously replenish our body with the good guys, we’re likely to always be one step behind without prebiotic and probiotic supplementation.
1. Schmidt, K., Cowen, P. J., Harmer, C. J., Tzortzis, G., Errington, S., & Burnet, P. W. (2014). Prebiotic intake reduces the waking cortisol response and alters emotional bias in healthy volunteers. Psychopharmacology,232(10), 1793-1801. doi:10.1007/s00213-014-3810-0
2. Legette, L. L., Lee, W., Martin, B. R., Story, J. A., Campbell, J. K., & Weaver, C. M. (2012). Prebiotics Enhance Magnesium Absorption and Inulin-based Fibers Exert Chronic Effects on Calcium Utilization in a Postmenopausal Rodent Model. Journal of Food Science,77(4), 88-94. doi:10.1111/j.1750-3841.2011.02612.x
3. Parnell, J. A., & Reimer, R. A. (2011). Prebiotic fibres dose-dependently increase satiety hormones and alter Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes in lean and obese JCR:LA-cp rats. British Journal of Nutrition,107(04), 601-613. doi:10.1017/s0007114511003163
4. Michel, C., Kravtchenko, T., David, A., Gueneau, S., Kozlowski, F., & Cherbut, C. (1998). In Vitroprebiotic effects of Acacia gums onto the human intestinal microbiota depends on both botanical origin and environmental pH. Anaerobe,4(6), 257-266. doi:10.1006/anae.1998.0178
5. Emily Courtney (Hyperbiotics)