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You know how important probiotics and fiber are for your gut. But do you know about prebiotics, the one all-important connection between the two? Prebiotics are very important for gut health because they feed probiotics and help the immune system.
For a healthy gut, we need a steady intake of prebiotics to give healthy bacteria something to build on. Are you getting enough? This post explains everything you need to know about prebiotics, plus how to know if you need a supplement.
What Are Prebiotics?
Prebiotics are fibers that can’t be digested. Because they don’t have the right enzymes, the stomach and small intestine can’t break down prebiotic fiber. But bacteria in the gut can turn it into alcohol. Even though it sounds bad to have fiber ferment in your gut, this is how bacteria get the food they need to grow and multiply.
If you’ve heard of “resistant starch,” you know about another type of fiber that has health benefits. Insulin and blood sugar are both helped by resistant starch. This is because it takes more work for the body to break down the starch.
Scientists used to think that oligosaccharides were the main type of prebiotics. Since then, they’ve learned that gut bacteria can eat other things, like resistant starch. Some types of resistant starch can also be prebiotics, but not all of them meet the requirements.
Some foods, like chicory root, are always full of prebiotics. After being cooked, some other types of fiber can become prebiotic. Some of these foods are white potatoes and some kinds of pasta. Because high heat changes the way the starch in these foods is made, they can become prebiotic. This makes it less likely to be digested all the way. The chemical structure of the fiber is better for the microbiota in our guts once it has cooled.
When the fiber or starch gets to the large intestine, it feeds the bacteria in the microbiome. It also slows down digestion, which keeps your blood sugar from rising as much as it would if you ate warm starchy foods.
How to Make it as a Prebiotic
Most of the time, prebiotics are food for bifidobacteria in the gut. A 2017 article in Nature says that for foods to be called prebiotics, they must meet certain criteria.
These things are:
- Not something that the stomach or small intestine can break down.
- Reach the colon in one piece so that good bacteria can ferment it there.
- Short-chain fatty acids are made when something ferments, and this makes bowel movements bigger.
- The pH in the colon is lowered.
- It boosts the immune system and helps the host’s environment.
- encourages the growth and activity of good bacteria in the intestine in a targeted way.
- has health-protecting effects.
Prebiotics Foods List
There are many everyday foods that have prebiotic benefits for digestive health. Some of the best prebiotic foods include:
- Chicory root
- Dandelion root (not dandelion greens)
- Jerusalem artichoke
- Oats, cooked
- Linseed, cooked
- Barley, cooked
- Wheat, cooked
- White potatoes, cooked and cooled
Some types of prebiotics can be manmade. These include inulin and oligofructose, which are often found in prebiotic supplements.
Prebiotic Benefits for Health
Even though that’s their main benefit, prebiotics do more than just feed the good bacteria in your gut. Our immune system won’t be strong if there aren’t many good bacteria around. Prebiotics help our gut microbiome and more in a number of ways.
You already know how important probiotics are for gut microbiota and immune health. Think of prebiotics as the foundation probiotics are built on. Prebiotics don’t just feed good bacteria, they also stimulate gut-associated lymphoid tissues. This mechanism can have disease-reducing side effects.
While prebiotic benefits research is still fairly new, some studies show they may protect against colorectal cancer.
A 2012 study noted prebiotics help change microflora in the large intestine. This helped reduce the risk of rogue cancer cells forming. While other studies show mixed results, prebiotics are essential for a healthy colon. Eating prebiotics won’t replace regular medical care and screenings, but they’re a great way to support preventive wellness.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are two forms of IBD. While scientists are still learning about IBD we know it’s connected to the immune system. Dysbiosis, an imbalance of good and bad gut bacteria, is often linked with IBD issues.
Prebiotics boost the production of short-chain fatty acids to help Crohn’s disease. They can also help ulcerative colitis by lessening the amount of hydrogen sulfide gas in the gut.
It’s worth mentioning that irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) isn’t as affected by prebiotics. While the initials are similar, IBS is a distinctly different condition than IBD. A 2019 meta-analysis found prebiotics don’t improve gastrointestinal symptoms in IBS. They did however increase bifidobacteria probiotics.
We know dietary fiber helps relieve constipation. Prebiotic fiber can also support normal elimination by helping the good bacteria thrive. When good bacteria are in balance we have less diarrhea and constipation.
Prebiotic Benefits for Weight
The gut regulates a part of body weight balance. When our gut bacteria is off, this can cause low-grade inflammation. The result is a disruption in how the body digests and absorbs glucose and fat. This can lead to extra fat storage, poor insulin response, and higher glucose levels. All these things together can contribute to weight gain and trouble losing weight.
While there are many components to weight loss, fiber helps support glucose and insulin. When we consider the microbiome benefits, and the research that shows probiotic levels help with weight, prebiotics become even more important.
We can eat a great diet and even take great supplements, but we only benefit from what the gut absorbs. The large intestine absorbs some of our vitamins and minerals. Prebiotics help us better absorb crucial minerals like calcium and magnesium. This occurs in response to short-chain fatty acids made from prebiotics.
Vitamins K and B, including B12 and biotin, are made in the large intestine. This happens thanks to fermentation from fiber and intestinal bacteria. When the gut isn’t healthy, or we don’t eat enough fiber, we can be low on these important nutrients.
Our body needs B vitamins to support nerve, brain, and mood health. We also use it for methylation and red blood cell formation. Vitamin K is critical for healthy and normal blood clotting.
Prebiotics vs. Probiotics
Probiotics have been popular for years. While prebiotics are often confused with probiotics they’re distinctly different. We could even argue that prebiotics are more important than probiotics!
Think about it: we have good bacteria in the gut, but how much will they thrive if they don’t have anything to feed on? On the flip side, even a small amount of good bacteria can thrive when prebiotics are present.
Many people assume taking a probiotic supplement is enough, but most probiotic strains from supplements are short-lived. They may only live for hours or days (weeks at the most) in the gut. We have to keep taking them to maintain good results. The most essential inborn strains for humans can’t be replicated in capsules. We need to nourish the gut’s ability to make its own good bacteria.
While some probiotics have specific instructions, like taking on an empty stomach, we can have prebiotics any time of the day. There’s no need to worry about timing as long as we’re taking them. The gut will take care of the rest.
Prebiotic Benefits for Sensitive Guts
Sometimes probiotic foods or supplements can cause gut problems. Sounds backward, right? Probiotics from fermented foods, like kimchi, kombucha, and kefir can be loaded with histamine. This is especially true of lactobacillus strains.
People who are histamine sensitive, have a DAO gene mutation, MCAS, or SIBO can feel awful taking probiotics. Even if you’re just prone to allergies, high histamine probiotics can disagree with you.
Side effects can include upset stomach, diarrhea, extreme bloating, itching, and general discomfort. While some need to avoid these, prebiotic foods and probiotics with bifidobacterium are still helpful to nourish the gut.
How Often Should You Eat Prebiotics?
It’s important to eat a well-balanced diet for many reasons. When we only eat the same few types of carbohydrates all the time, we could miss out on prebiotics.
Ideally, we should get prebiotics in the diet on a regular basis. Gut bacteria need to “eat” as often as we do. When we go too long without enough prebiotic fiber, gut bacteria don’t have the nourishment they need.
It’s easy to not get enough prebiotics, but can we get too many? Eating too much fiber, in general, can lead to bloating and discomfort. This is especially true if someone goes from a low-fiber diet to a high-fiber one. It’s important to slowly increase fiber intake.
In general, we can’t get too many prebiotics that would affect the gut in a negative way. Gut bacteria will take what they need and eliminate the rest.
Do You Need Prebiotic Supplements?
Diets that regularly have prebiotic foods (daily or at least several times a week), probably don’t need supplements. Those who struggle to get enough fiber or are sensitive to many prebiotic foods could benefit from a supplement. Prebiotic supplements can increase bacterial diversity and have the same benefits as food-based prebiotics. Both support the immune system and promote nutrient absorption and balanced weight.
One of my favorite prebiotic supplements comes from Just Thrive. Their Precision PREbiotic is paleo and keto-friendly without the nasty fillers. Plus the fiber they use is gentler on the digestive system for a happier gut. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t enjoy having a soothed, healthy gut!
This article was medically reviewed by Jessica Meyers, MPAP, PA-C, RH(AHG), who specializes in herbal protocols and functional medicine. You can also find Jessica on Instagram. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Have you ever tried prebiotic supplements? Do you eat a lot of prebiotic foods? Share your experiences and tips in the comments below!
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- Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. (n.d.) IBS vs IBD.
- MacPherson, R. (2022). The Prebiotic Benefits of Oligosaccharides. Very Well Fit.
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- Wicinski, M., et al. (2020). Probiotics for the Treatment of Overweight and Obesity in Humans-A Review of Clinical Trials. Microorganisms, 8(8), 1148
- Wilson, B., Rossi, M., Dimidi, E., & Whelan, K. (2019). Prebiotics in irritable bowel syndrome and other functional bowel disorders in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 109(4), 1098–1111.