Over the past few years, researchers and fitness buffs have come to realize that the bacteria in our guts play a key role in our health. But what many of us are unaware of are the other varied benefits that come with a healthy gut. Aside from improved digestion, having enough gut flora has been tied to reduced bowel inflammation, improved regulation of blood-sugar levels, lower cholesterol levels, and even an enhanced mood. Research is also being carried out on how the gut effects conditions like colon cancer and Alzheimer’s. The findings are promising and this is a clear indication given the skyrocketing sales of probiotics and probiotic fortified foods.
But here’s a fact that most of us are not aware of: In order to reap the benefits of probiotics, it is equally essential to consume prebiotics, the fiber on which the probiotics feed. Let’s take a look at how these two crucial nutrients affect each other and our overall health.
Know The Difference
We are all familiar with the term Probiotics- the health-promoting gut bacteria that are found in fermented food products like yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha. Besides these food products, similar bacteria are naturally residing in our guts. The main function of probiotics is to swing your overall bacterial balance towards “good” and preventing harmful bacteria from overpowering your system and the reason behind issues such as inflammation, infections and other gastrointestinal issues like irritable bowel syndrome and diarrhea.
Prebiotics, on the other hand, are completely different and are not living organisms like the probiotics. Prebiotics are soluble, fermentable fibers that are undigestable in the stomach. This results in them being transported to our intestines, where they are consumed by the probiotics and fermented into short-chain fatty acids. These fatty acids are crucial in providing all the good benefits that keep us healthy long after we’ve consumed our last spoonful of yogurt.
Gastroenterologist, Purva Kashyap told Runner’s World, that feeding the gut flora is vital because, without the proper fuel, the good gut bacteria can die off or even turn on you. She says, “Most bacteria are opportunists.They’ll try to find nutrients elsewhere and could go after the mucus lining of the intestines.” This mucus is what keeps your gut protected from the nearby “bad” bacteria.
Including Them In The Diet
Now that we have made it clear that probiotics and prebiotics are both equally essential for your health, the next step should be on how to go about consuming both these nutrients.
Kashyap, who is a member of the scientific advisory board for the American Gastroenterological Association Center for Gut Microbiome Research and Education, says that when it comes to probiotics naturally occurring sources always trump supplements. Of the many reasons behind this statement, the first being that the good bacteria in foods like yogurt, kimchi, and kefir are all ”live’ cultures that are feeding on the carbohydrates and sugars that surround them in their containers. This ensures that they will still be alive even after they reach your gut. On the other hand, the bacteria found in supplements don’t have anything to feed on, so many of them die off long before you pop the first pill from the bottle.
Secondly, natural sources of probiotics have a greater variety of bacteria than supplements. Kashyap says, ” Though there is strength in the number of microbes there is also strength in diversity, which creates a more robust bacterial ecosystem. That way, different bacteria can easily feed on different nutrients in your system.” Research also shows that the one common statistic for a variety of medical conditions, including diabetes and bowel disease, is a low-level of microbial diversity.
Just like probiotics, prebiotics should also be consumed through food, rather than supplements. Given the high soluble fiber content in onion, garlic, artichokes, and beans are all good sources. Other sources include foods that contain a form of resistant starch, a fiber that gets its name because it “resists” digestion in the stomach. Resistant starch is present in oats, unripe (green) bananas, and legumes and because of the way the starch is affected by heat, it’s also present in cooked then cooled pasta, potatoes, and rice. Prebiotics are likely to already be a part of your diet and all you’ll need to do is to serve it cold with a healthy serving of probiotics to go with it.