Think of your gut as an ecosystem — a home that’s technically called a microbiome, where bacteria “good guys” live and help you break down and digest food, build immunity and stop inflammation that can cause disease.
We’re talking about probiotics aka beneficial bacteria. Then there are prebiotics, food that nourishes probiotics in the gut, passing through like transient guests that leave behind nutrients to fuel the good bacteria. (The good guys need to eat, too.)
Do we need probiotic/prebiotic supplements, or are the foods we eat enough? And what benefits do these bacteria give our bodies, anyway?
Here’s what you need to know from Lizzy Traxler, clinical outpatient dietitian at University Hospitals Digestive Health Institute.
Q: How do probiotics and prebiotics work together in the gut to improve health?
A: Probiotics are live microorganisms, including bacteria and yeast, that can improve immunity and gastrointestinal health, prevent disease and stop infections. Other benefits include lowering cholesterol and blood pressure, and improving metabolic functions such as blood sugar regulation that some say can help with weight regulation or increase lean muscle mass. Prebiotics are “food” for probiotics. What can confuse people is that prebiotics do not inhabit the gut. They pass through, and when they do, they interact with the gut lining, bacteria and other microorganisms to help them flourish. Prebiotics help strengthen the colonization of healthy bacteria.
Q: What foods can we eat to get probiotics and prebiotics?
A: We usually recommend fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, some cheese, pickles, miso and other foods that contain live and active cultures. But keep in mind that some fermented foods can start off with live microorganisms, but through food processing, they can die, and the food no longer provides a sufficient amount to produce health benefits. Prebiotics are found in foods like bananas, asparagus, artichokes, garlic, onion and a lot of granola bars and cereals contain prebiotic fibers. If you see the words “chicory root fiber” or “inulin fiber,” those are key words to recognize that it’s a prebiotic product.
Q: How much probiotics and prebiotics should we get to attain health benefits?
A: That’s a tough question to answer because it depends on the strain of probiotic microorganisms and the health benefits you want to achieve. If you’re looking to address a symptom like constipation, you would find out which bacterial strand supports this and how much is necessary. Some probiotics are for general health benefits, others are specialized.
Q: So, you can’t necessarily assign a “healthy number” like 50 billion colony forming units?
A: Correct. That number is just part of the equation. The type of probiotic in the supplement is just as important. For instance, lactobacillus rhamnosus GG is well researched as a strain of bacteria with health benefits including reducing constipation and it would be listed on the packaging, which will also list health benefits.
Q: Is it necessary to supplement? Who should consider it?
A: Generally, if you are a healthy individual, I would say skip the supplements and get probiotics and prebiotics through foods. If you have another goal, then a supplement could be helpful.
Q: At the end of the day, what should we know about probiotics and prebiotics for our health?
A: Variety is key. Our guts are a really diverse environment, and there are tons of different microorganisms living there that all need to be nourished. So, focus on a varied diet with fiber foods that include fruits, vegetables and whole grains. It’s not that great to eat the same thing day in and day out. Our guts really want different types of foods coming in so they can break them down, metabolize them and strengthen the gut lining.
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These foods contain the probiotics and prebiotics that will help your body stay in balance.
Yogurt: Look for a plain variety containing live active cultures.
Pickles: Choose the unpasteurized kind.
Sauerkraut: To be effective, this type of fermented cabbage must be the refrigerated variety. (Kimchi, a spicy mix of cabbage and other vegetables, is a good alternative.)
Kombucha: This fermented black or green tea is made with strains of bacteria, yeast and sugar.
Miso: The fermented paste is cultivated from rice, barley or soybeans.
Banana: Go for slightly green (unripe) ones because they’re high in resistant starch, which has prebiotic properties.
Garlic: The popular herb is known for prebiotic and anti-inflammatory benefits.
Jerusalem artichoke (aka sunchoke): A member of the sunflower family, it can be baked, roasted, boiled or eaten raw for healthy gut benefits.
Asparagus: The vegetable contains the prebiotic inulin that can help maintain healthy levels of glucose and insulin.
Onion: This pungent vegetable is rich in inulin.