Although probiotics get most of the notoriety, prebiotics can be just as important to the digestive system. The reason is that they are the fuel that drives probiotics so they can do their job – namely, helping to ensure that there is a good balance between beneficial and harmful bacteria in the “gut,” or the gastrointestinal system. While there are several types of foods that contain prebiotics, they are also available, along with probiotics, in supplemental form, such as capsules, powders, and drinks. Here are just a few of the potential benefits that prebiotics can deliver to the body.
A lot of the foods we eat, such as bananas, garlic, onions, and asparagus, contain tiny fibers that we can’t digest. These fibers are known as prebiotics. Although we can’t break them down, bacteria can. Bacteria break down fibers into substances known as short-chain fatty acids, which are very important. One such acid, known as butyric acid, helps strengthen the lining of the intestines. Other short-chain fatty acids perform vital functions, such as helping maintain regular bowel movements, making sure the body has the proper electrolyte levels, and more.1
Studies show that increasing your intake of prebiotics, whether through your diet or through supplements, can substantially increase the number of beneficial bacteria in the gut. These include several strains of the Lactobacillus family of bacteria, including L. rhamnosus GG, L. reuteri, L. acidophilus, and others. This, in turn, can provide several digestive benefits, including the reduction of symptoms associated with diarrhea, inflammatory bowel disease, and irritable bowel syndrome.2
Improved Immune System Functioning
When the immune system is working properly, it helps prevent a wide range of health issues. These include digestive disorders, urinary tract infections, colds and flu, and many others. The immune system is what helps protect us from a wide range of serious illnesses, so you obviously want it to be as strong as possible.
Research indicates increasing the intake of prebiotics can help do just that.3 Prebiotics help strengthen the immune system by improving our ability to absorb critical minerals and other nutrients from our food. They also lower acidity in the gut, which helps to slow the growth of harmful bacteria and other pathogens.
Inflammation is at the heart of a lot of different health problems, and prebiotics have been shown to help reduce it.4 One of the reasons why, researchers believe, is that a combination of prebiotics and probiotics have an effect on the metabolic processes that are associated with several diseases that are linked to inflammation, such as obesity. The healthier the gut, studies show, the better the body metabolizes important nutrients. This also affects they way the body stores fats.5
Maintaining Bone Health
Proper absorption of minerals such as iron, calcium, and magnesium is critical to healthy bones, and studies show that prebiotics help the body absorb these specific nutrients. This helps keep the bones strong and reduces the risk of suffering a fracture or developing osteoporosis, a condition that makes the bones brittle and much easier to break. One study, in particular, showed that simply increasing prebiotic intake by eight grams each day can have a dramatic impact on the amount of calcium in the body, which, in turn, leads to increased bone strength.6
Effects on the Regulation of Hormones
While research into the connection between the gut and the brain is just getting started, there is a growing body of evidence that the health of the gastrointestinal tract can have an affect on disorders related to mood, including depression and anxiety. One of the factors that leads to these problems is a disruption in the way certain neurotransmitters fire. These neurotransmitters help to control emotions such as fear. If the balance of bacteria in the gut is off, that can have an effect on certain neural pathways.
Studies have shown that prebiotics can have a substantial impact on some of the functions of the brain, including production of the hormone cortisol.7 Cortisol is often referred to as “the stress hormone” because the body produces it during stressful situations. But it can also help reduce inflammation, regulate metabolism, and make sure blood sugar levels are normal. Low levels of cortisol can result in problems such as muscle loss, increased fatigue, an unexpected loss of weight, and mood swings.
How to Increase Your Intake of Prebiotics
We briefly touched on some of the foods that are good sources of prebiotics, such as garlic and bananas. But there are several others as well, including leeks, artichokes, chicory root, and others.
There are a lot of ways that you can include these kinds of foods in your diet, and, as a result, increase your supply of beneficial probiotics. Here are just a few suggestions:
- Sunchokes, also known as Jerusalem artichokes, have a mild flavor and can easily be made into a dip. Many people like shredding them and adding them to salads as well.
- If you’re thinking of buying more bananas because of their prebiotic qualities, look for ones that aren’t quite ripe yet. They should appear more green than yellow. They won’t taste as sweet, but they will still be good in a smoothie.
- Chicory root, another great source of probiotics, can be used as a substitute for coffee. It tastes much the same, and it doesn’t have caffeine.
If you are taking probiotic supplements, look for products that have prebiotics in them as well. While getting your prebiotics through food is preferable, sometimes we just don’t have the time to prepare the foods that will provide us with the most benefits. This is where a supplement can be extremely important.