What Are Probiotics and Prebiotics and What’s their Purpose?
Probiotics are a type of “good” bacteria that play a vital role in keeping your digestive system healthy by monitoring growth of unhealthy bacteria. Prebiotics are carbohydrates that cannot be digested by the human body. They act as a source of nutrition for probiotics. The primary role of probiotics and prebiotics is to keep your digestive system working smoothly.
Probiotics are live bacteria in yogurt and other dairy products and also come in supplements. Doctors often prescribe probiotics to patients taking doses of antibiotics in order to prevent gastrointestinal side effects of the medication. While probiotics have proven great results in curing certain gastrointestinal conditions, they do not have the same qualities as prebiotics.
A prebiotic is made up of indigestible fiber that is used by the good bacteria as a food source. Prebiotics are found in wheat, bananas, leeks, onions, garlic, chicory root, artichokes, wild yam, and jicama. In the U.S., most people get only 2-3 grams a day on average with 70% of this coming from wheat and 20% from onions.
Prebiotics work in a very advantageous way to provide significant health benefits. The good bacteria produce certain substances that acidify the colon and serve as a nutritional source for the colon cells. When the pH in the colon is lowered, this type of environment is best for the optimal growth of good bacteria. Thus, prebiotics provide a suitable nutritional source for the colon itself. When the health of both the colon and the bacteria are boosted, the body is able to function maximally.
Probiotics and Prebiotics in Your Diet
The science on what probiotics do is still being discovered. There is some solid evidence that suggests eating probiotic foods and supplements can have a beneficial effect on health. A common misconception is that probiotics are only to be used by individuals who are healthy. Clinical studies have shown that probiotics should be avoided by anyone who has a serious health condition.
Despite the uncertainty regarding probiotics, foods enriched with probiotics and probiotic supplements are extremely popular in the U.S. Finding probiotic supplements in grocery stores is quiet easy. Many of us may already know that yogurt contains probiotic bacteria such as lactobacillus and bifidobacteria. Many clinical studies demonstrate that these bacteria relieve symptoms related to lactose intolerance.
More foods that contain probiotics include:
- Soft cheese and enriched milk — Soft cheeses such as Gouda are good sources of probiotics. Evidence suggests probiotic bacteria that live in soft cheese are better able to survive in the acidic stomach.
- Fermented sour pickles — Pickling foods in salt water instead of vinegar produces bacteria that are beneficial for your gut.
- Sourdough bread — Sourdough contains lactobacillus, one of the bacterium found in yogurt
- Unpasteurized sauerkraut and kimchi — These dishes contain essential probiotics plus many vitamins. Avoid pasteurized options as the process eliminates productive bacteria.
- Miso soup — Fermented soybean that contains over 150 bacteria, is low in calories and high in vitamins and antioxidants.
Precaution While Using Probiotics and Prebiotics
Most probiotics are safe. However, if you have an immune disorders, or have any serious chronic disease, check with your physician. It is known that it is unlikely that taking a probiotic by itself will result in its taking up permanent residence in your gut. Some experts say that you have to take it indefinitely. Most probiotics are considered the good types to have in the gut, but unless a stool test is done on the bacterial makeup of the gut, it will always be an estimate. There are over 1000 species of bacteria already in the colon. It is not yet suggested if adding in more bacteria will make a significant difference to the gut health.
However, research does strongly suggests that a favorable bacterial balance in the gut positively affects the factors influencing heart disease, immunity, bone health, obesity and weight loss. Research is still being done on the roles that bacteria play in human health, but it is quite evident that people with healthier lives have healthier bacterial balances. People who lack the good bacteria in their guts are more likely to suffer serious health problems.
To take advantage and optimize the potential of probiotics in foods, the best option is to add prebiotic fiber to your diet. That way the benefits of both prebiotics and probiotics on the bacteria in your gut are maximized.