Health / Expert Advice

Your Basic Guide to Prebiotics and Probiotics

Maintaining proper gut health may be your key to healthy living.

Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria. This may sound alarming but fear not. The presence of negative bacteria and germs that potentially lead to illness can happen. However, not all bacteria is bad. Bacteria get a bad reputation, but in reality, it can be the source of maintaining your overall digestive health. Plus, it can even serve as the foundation for your immune system. Good bacteria acts as the filtering and sorting center for the nutrients processed in your body, so they serve a vital role. How can you make sure the good bacteria continues to thrive and regulate your gut health? With the use of prebiotics and probiotics.

Seen all over health stores, in beauty products, and even at breweries, products, supplements, and food or drinks containing prebiotics and probiotics are growing in popularity. With the help of nutritional experts, we review the importance of both and the best ways to include them in your diet.

What are prebiotics?

Prebiotics are basically the official characteristics of food or necessary nutrients you need to ingest to feed probiotics. Prebiotics help create an environment that feeds and keeps the healthy and good bacteria in your gut and intestines alive. Lyn Oswald, co-founder and COO of ISOThrive, says, “Researchers from Stanford University and the University of Michigan are now telling us it’s way more important to feed the bacteria you already have than to try to add new ones. The body relies on the bacteria in our gut to produce certain key nutrients that are required for us to be healthy.”

Many people take supplements to increase good bacteria. However, you also need to feed and maintain the existing bacteria in your gut to allow them to thrive. Oswald explains, “Trying to add new bacteria is difficult at best. First, most of the healthful bacteria in a probiotic supplement are dead before they ever make it to store shelf, let alone your mouth. (This is why it’s important to purchase quality probiotic supplements.) Then, once swallowed, most of the rest are killed by stomach acid and enzymes. Our bodies are, after all, designed to kill bacteria in the stomach. And the place that these healthful bacteria do their work is lower down, in the colon.”

How do you get prebiotics into your system?

“Prebiotics come in a wide range of foods,” Oswald says. “Foods like raw garlic and onions, Jerusalem artichokes, fermented vegetables, and fermented sourdough bread all contain prebiotic properties and nutrients. The fermented category is particularly important. If you’re like most people, you’re not going to eat a whole jar of kimchi or an entire loaf of fermented sourdough bread every day. (If you can even find it. Modern sourdough is rarely made through fermentation anymore.) Yet some of our gut bacteria require those large servings of fermented foods. A small condiment amount, unfortunately, isn’t enough.” Try mixing up the ingestion of fermented foods in your diet. Not only will this create diversity in what you eat, but consuming various sources of prebiotics is beneficial to your digestive tract too.

What are probiotics?

As wild as this may sound, probiotics are live microorganisms ingested through supplements and certain foods and drinks. They promote different health benefits. The practice of eating probiotic-rich foods was discovered by Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Metchnikoff. He suggested that the people of Bulgaria’s working class in the early 1900s lived longer due to eating yogurt, which is rich with live cultures and useful microbes (otherwise known as probiotics). These support the digestive system.

Swanson Health’s director of science and innovation, Amy Sunderman, M.S., R.D., says, “There are thousands of probiotic strains available. Most of them fit into two primary categories. [The first is] lactobacilli, which produce lactic acid and help control the population of harmful bacteria. [The second is] bifidobacteria, which support the immune system and limit the growth of harmful bacteria in the intestine.”

Sunderman also suggests doing your research to find the probiotic and strain that fits your needs. “For example, if you are having trouble with digestive issues, you might consider L. fermentum or L. brevis. If you are concerned about colon health, the probiotic B. breve may be a good choice.”

How do you get probiotics into your system?

Just like prebiotics, you can find probiotics in naturally fermented foods. These include yogurt, kefir (yogurt drink), kombucha (fermented tea), kimchi (fermented cabbage), and sauerkraut. Health and wellness expert Jennifer Dennis-Wall says that fermented foods are rich in probiotics. However, she adds, “some of these foods are pasteurized after they are fermented. Pasteurization may kill some or all of the microbes—bacteria, yeast, etc.—that we consider the probiotics. Some manufacturers add probiotics back in after pasteurization. These food labels would then say ‘with live, active cultures’ on the packaging. Sometimes the actual name of the microorganism will be in the ingredients section. Names can include bifidobacterium, lactobacillus, Saccharomyces, or something similar.”

If you want a supplement instead of probiotic-rich foods, there are many choices. “The most likely one to benefit you is probably one that has many different strains, or types, of bacteria,” Wall says. “Some contain up to 30 different strains. The bacteria in our intestines can be very different from person to person. [So,] some probiotics don’t make a difference for one person but do make a difference for others. This is why taking a larger number of strains can make you more likely to consume at least one that you do not already have in your body.”

Additionally, do your research and buy quality supplements with a large number of live cultures. This is because they tend to die quickly before reaching your stomach and colon. Wall says that research has shown probiotics to be very safe in healthy individuals. However, she adds, for infants and those with weakened immune function, it’s best that they talk to their doctor before consuming probiotics.

Health Benefits of Taking Prebiotics and Probiotics

“The most frequently touted benefits of probiotics are related to digestive and gut health. But probiotics also promote immune health, brain health, and emotional wellness,” Sunderman says. “These microorganisms are already in your digestive system. But, everything from stress to the foods we eat to chemicals in our water can upset the natural balance in our gut.” These external circumstances can throw your body off balance and impact almost every major system. By consuming prebiotics and probiotics, you’re ensuring that your body maintains its proper functioning in your stomach. This can translate positively throughout your entire body.

If you’re not sure about how or what probiotics and prebiotics to take, talk to your doctor or dietitian to figure out the best course of action for you.

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