Heard about prebiotics but don’t know exactly what they are and what they do in the body? Here’s what you need to know about them and why they are essential to gut health.
In this article:
- Are Gut Microbes Friends or Foes?
- What Are Prebiotics?
- How Prebiotics Can Benefit the Gut
- Where Do We Get Prebiotics?
How Prebiotics Help the Gut
Are Gut Microbes Friends or Foes?
The Human Microbiome Project, funded by the National Institute of Health, has delved down into the microbiology of the human gut. The project found out there are host-microbiome interactions that can be protective or detrimental to human health.
Microbiome Definition: A group of tiny organisms, like viruses, fungi, and bacteria, that thrive in an organism or ecosystem. It plays an important role in human health.
Disease states associated with microbiome dysbiosis include:
- Insulin dysregulation
- Leaky gut syndrome
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Ulcerative colitis
- Crohn’s disease
The types and amounts of microbes surviving in the gut depend on many factors, such as the following:
- Types of foods consumed
- Antibiotic/drug use
- Toxic chemical exposure
- Heavy metal load
- Environmental exposures to microbes
Microbial supplements, known as probiotics, can be used to repopulate the gut with beneficial strains of bacteria. While these can be beneficial for a severely compromised gut, one must realize there are thousands of strains of beneficial bacteria, yet probiotic supplements typically contain less than ten strains — none of which are human-derived strains.
Eating fermented foods can provide you with a wider array of beneficial microbes, as can exposing oneself to healthy soil, such as in your own organic garden.
What Are Prebiotics?
Before we discuss how prebiotics can help the gut, it is important to know what they are first.
Prebiotics are a type of fiber that passes through the small intestine, but they are not digested. Rather, they are fermented upon reaching the large intestine.
Friendly bacteria, including probiotics, eat fermented prebiotics, providing several health benefits to the gut.
How Prebiotics Can Benefit the Gut
Now, let’s examine the enhancing effect of foods known as prebiotics.
Prebiotics feed your beneficial gut flora, helping them proliferate. The prebiotic effect is the stimulation of growth and activity of microbial species in the gut that confer health benefits.
These increased numbers of healthy bacteria crowd out undesirable bacteria and other microorganisms. The resulting balanced microflora brings the pH of the gut to the ideal level.
This allows for the accelerated healing processes and optimization of the gut-associated lymphoid tissue, which is a large portion of your immune system.
Lymphoid Tissue Definition: Cells that make up the lymphatic system such as bone marrow and white blood cells.
The healthier your gut, the more minerals can be absorbed, thus positively influencing your overall health. For example, calcium absorption and bone density have increased with prebiotics supplements.
When gut microorganisms metabolize prebiotic fiber, they create butyric acid, a short-chain fatty acid that helps heal our gut lining. You may have heard of butyric acid, the compound that gives butter its distinctive flavor.
The butyric acid comes from the microbial breakdown of grasses the cow eats.
Prebiotics bring about a beneficial change in the gut microbiota composition. Studies show positive effects on markers associated with the immune function, allergies, satiety, infections, stool quality, bowel disease, and cancer.
Prebiotics and other specific food components may also change gene expression in various tissues, improving gut function, immunity, and body composition.
Add more prebiotics to your diet to help avoid the following:
- Immune problems
- Bowel disease
- Mineral deficiencies
- Gut dysbiosis
Where Do We Get Prebiotics?
Aside from supplements, you can also get the fiber from these prebiotics foods:
Onions are usually present in our daily recipes, and they possess fructooligosaccharides (FOS), a sweet carb typically used as a sweetener because of its low-calorie content compared to sugar. This carb strengthens the gut ecosystem by changing its microbial composition.
Leeks come from the same family as garlic and onions, providing similar health benefits. They possess inulin, a starchy substance commonly present in herbs, fruits, and veggies and is used in medicine for treating diarrhea and constipation.
The stomach does not absorb inulin, but it goes to the bowel. The good gut bacteria use it for their growth. This leads to improved bowel function which can aid in your weight loss journey.
Garlic naturally gives a tasty flavor, and it contains 11% inulin and 6% FOS. The herb serves as a prebiotic that promotes the growth of the good bacteria called Bifidobacteria in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
Garlic also helps prevent disease-promoting bacteria or bad bacteria from thriving in the GI tract.
4. Chicory Root
The chicory root is known for its similar taste to coffee, plus being a good source of prebiotics. It has 47% inulin, which aids in digestive health and constipation relief.
5. Jerusalem Artichokes
Also known as earth apple, Jerusalem artichokes have about 2g dietary fiber per 100g, 76% of which is from inulin. A study showed that earth apple enhances the growth of healthy gut bacteria more than chicory root.
6. Dandelion Greens
Dandelion greens are rich in fiber, containing 4g per 100-g serving and a bigger portion of the fiber is from inulin.
7. Jicama Root
What makes this root wonderful is its high levels of fiber, including inulin, and low levels of calories. Aside from that, it also possesses high amounts of water essential in promoting proper bowel movement.
This popular veggie is packed with nutrients and prebiotics. Its inulin content is roughly 2-3g per 100-g serving, which helps promote the development of good bacteria.
Note: These foods are most potent in their raw forms, as cooking breaks down some of the fiber.
Prebiotics is indeed an essential fiber needed for the promotion of a healthy digestive tract and your overall health. You only need to know and understand what the fiber does in your body so you can prioritize it in your diet.
Prebiotic sources can come from prebiotic supplements or foods. If you’re unsure how you should consume it, consult a dietician for proper nutritional guidance.
Which of the prebiotics foods is your favorite? Let us know in the comments section below.
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Sources for this article:
- NCBI-NLM Gut Microbiota Modulation
- NCBI-NLM Modulation of the Gut
- NIH Human Microbiome Project
- NCBI-NLM Prebiotic Effects
- NCBI-NLM Gut Microbial Mutualism
- NCBI-NLM The Effects of Insulin
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on June 12, 2017, and has been updated for quality and relevancy.