Lately probiotics are getting a lot of attention, and for good reason. The more research that is done, the more we are seeing just how much of an impact gut health has on the rest of our body. This article is not recommending everyone begin the use of probiotic supplements. Rather, the article is meant to discuss the potential health benefits of including both prebiotic and probiotic food sources as part of your diet for overall gut health.
What are probiotics? What’s the difference between prebiotics and probiotics?
Probiotics are living organisms collected from strains of bacteria or yeasts. They are found in certain foods, dietary supplements, and live in our gut. They have been scientifically proven to be beneficial to our health, especially to our digestive system. Probiotics are fed by other foods, a.k.a. prebiotics.
Prebiotics are the “food” that help probiotics really flourish. They are essentially indigestible carbohydrates (fiber) that feed healthy bacteria. Probiotics and prebiotics work together as a “team” – so including food sources that are rich in both will lead to the most benefit.
How are probiotics beneficial to our health?
The research is clear that probiotics improve gut health. There are billions of strains of probiotics, and specific strands have been shown to have an impact on certain health conditions. For example, the strands lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacterium have been shown as beneficial in relieving symptoms of IBS such as constipation and/or diarrhea. Research is still in infant stages on additional health claims such as weight management, and mood regulation. A lesser known fact is that our digestive tract actually plays a pretty large role in our immune system. Because probiotics can help destroy harmful microorganisms, they could also help maintain a healthy immune system.
Medications such as antibiotics, an unhealthy diet, or high levels of stress can knock your gut microbiome (i.e. the collection of bacteria in your intestines) out of whack. As a result, you may experience diarrhea, bloating, or constipation.
What foods contain probiotics? What foods contain prebiotics?
The best way to reap these benefits is from food. I always prefer a “food first” approach. Research has shown that your diet directly influences the function and composition of your gut microbiome.
Foods rich in probiotics include fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut and kimchi, yogurt, miso, kefir, tempeh, and kombucha.
Foods rich in prebiotics include soybeans, legumes, whole grains and a variety of fruits and vegetables such as bananas, onions, asparagus, and jicama.
Large consumption of animal products and low intakes of plant foods and fiber can negatively influence the composition of your gut microbiome. Reducing your intake of high sugar - low fiber - refined foods can also improve gut health.
So if a food is fortified with probiotics, it has to be good…right?
Wrong. Don’t be fooled by processed, packaged foods such as tortilla chips, granola bars, and even gummy fruit snacks that boast being “fortified with probiotics”. It is likely these foods do not contain live active cultures, and you know you’re probably better off just eating something that didn’t come from a box. The “fortified with probiotic” claim tries to make not-so-healthy snack foods seem so much healthier and wholesome than they really are...a great marketing trick. It’s also important to note that if you heat probiotic-rich foods to high temperatures, you kill the active cultures, rendering them useless.
Should I take a probiotic supplement? What about a prebiotic?
In the case that you struggle with IBS, IBD, etc., taking a daily probiotic supplement could be beneficial. Talk with your doctor or dietitian prior to starting one to see which strand is best for you and your condition. Not all probiotics have the same effect. When considering a supplement, it’s important to know what your purpose is for taking it, as different strains are effective at treating certain issues.
For overall good gut health, eating a balanced diet that is rich in both prebiotics and probiotics is ideal. You should strive to rely on food rather than a supplement to have a continuously healthy gut. If you’re finding yourself constantly having to take both a prebiotic and probiotic daily to stay regular, you may need to reassess your diet. If you adjust your diet so that it incorporates more fiber-rich prebiotic containing foods (whole grains, legumes, vegetables) and try including a food that’s rich in probiotics each day (yogurt, kefir, kombucha, fermented vegetables) then chances are you likely won’t need to take a supplement.