Bacteria and your gut: Do probiotics and prebiotics help?

What about probiotics and prebiotics? These are HOT in health and wellness at the moment. They come in the form of expensive powders, pills, and beverages as well as vegetables, yogurt, and tasty kimchi among others. However, like most health products, there is more to the story, especially when it comes to probiotics and prebiotics.

This article provides evidence-based information about pre- and probiotics so you can make informed decisions.

Before we dive into what pre-and probiotics are, here is a little background information. Did you know that your body is home to trillions of bugs? Thousands of species of bugs, or microorganisms, live on your skin, in your gut, and just about all parts of your body. The bugs include bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses. Collectively, these bugs are called the microbiome, and you would not exist without it.

The cool thing is that, like DNA, no 2 people have the same microbiome. The composition of the bugs that live on your body is unique to you. Bugs started living on you the second you entered this world through the birth canal and by drinking breast milk or formula. ALthough initially, your microbiome comes from your mother, your environment and diet affect the composition of your microbiome later on.

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The gut inhabits its own microbiome called the gut microbiome. Humans have over 1000 different species of bacteria in the gut, mostly belonging to one of 2 bacteria families, the Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes families. There are tens of billions of bacteria living in the human colon alone. That is 10 times the number of cells that make up the human body. Even in seemingly healthy people, researchers have found that the gut microbiome is quite diverse.

Simply put, we are a sack of cells and bacteria that eat, poop, and have sex.  

So how do the bugs in your gut affect you? They are crucial to digestion and acquiring nutrients from foods you eat. For example, you cannot digest some of the food you eat, however the bugs can, like components of vegetables such as lettuce and onion. Fiber is a critical component in the human diet, but some of the fiber eaten is only digested by the gut bugs. In fact, they thrive on it and in turn, release compounds called short chain fatty acids (SCFA). SCFA are a great energy source for the cells of your intestines, improve gut health, and may even prevent tumor growth.

Whether you know it or not, you have a very intimate relationship with the bugs that live on and in you. You must be a good host. Like leaving a mint on their pillow, you must feed them high quality, nutritious food and, in turn, you will attract only the best kind of bugs that will provide you with all the nutrients you need for a healthy gut, heart, liver, brain and immune system. In other words, what you eat matters!

Prebiotics and Probiotics

That’s right…what you eat matters, especially when it comes to the bugs that live in your gut. These bugs have the power to greatly affect your health and wellbeing. Prebiotics and probiotics are two components that promote healthy gut bugs and their functions.

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Probiotics are bacteria in foods and supplements that are alive. These bacteria are naturally created by the process of fermentation in foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, miso soup, and kimchi. While you already have live bacteria in your gut, consuming a probiotic may improve the gut bacteria composition by increasing the amount of the good bacteria. Research has shown that probiotics may help repopulate the colon with healthy gut bugs after antibiotic (which wipe out the gut microbiome), improve symptoms of Irrital Bowel Syndrome and other gastrointestinal disorders, and may even be beneficial to treatment of obesity, type-2 diabetes, insulin resistance, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

However, there are a few things to know about probiotics before you buy the expensive supplements or stock up on yogurt. Probiotics are only effective if they are alive. In fact, probiotics are fragile and can be killed by heat, stomach acid, and sitting too long on the shelf at the grocery store. Additionally, there are hundreds of probiotic species, however the best species for the average person is still unknown. Once ingested, probiotics must compete with hundreds of thousands of other bacteria in the gut to survive and flourish.

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Prebiotics are food for the bacteria in the gut. They are non-digestible fibers in food that you eat that pass through the stomach and small intestine undigested. The bacteria in the colon ferment these fibers and use them for energy. These fibers area found in food like bananas, onions, skin of apples, beans, and many others. *Notice these are non-processed foods 😉. Prebiotics are FIBERS* that provide food for the good kind of gut bugs causing them grow in number, improve your health, and reduce risk of disease.

*Fiber is a crucial part of the human diet and most Americans do not consume enough. The recommended daily intake of fiber is 25g/say from food. However, this number is extremely low. Increase your fiber intake through having a serving of vegetables at every meal. This is ideal food for the good bacteria that inhabits your gut!

You can think of probiotics as the seeds of a garden and the prebiotics as the fertilizer that help the seeds grow and flourish.Unlike probitioics, prebiotics are not affected by heat, stomach acid, or time and studies have shown that prebiotics may help improve immunity, digestive health, bone density, weight management, and brain health

While there are many prebiotic pills and supplements, there is one simple thing to know about prebiotics; they are easily acquired. Just eat your fruits and veggies!

Should you consume probiotics?

While probiotics may exist in many tasty foods, the true effect on health (if any) is not fully understood. Buying expensive supplements may not be worth it. Spend your money on food sources of probiotics such as kimchi and sauerkraut. If you love yogurt, stick with plain Greek yogurt. Many other yogurts are loaded with added sugar and artificial flavors. However, if you have undergone a round of antibiotics, a probiotic may help repopulate your gut with goods bugs. As always, consult a gastroenterologist before trying something too crazy.

Should you consume prebiotics?

Simple. YES! Prebiotics are easily acquired through eating a healthy diet with plenty of vegetables and fruits. Increase your daily fiber intake by incorporating a serving of vegetables in every meal.