More than you realize, your health is impacted by prebiotics. Considered the ultimate party snack for the helpful microbial guests in your intestinal tract, prebiotics do more than keep the good times rolling in your gut. In fact, your health may be suffering from not getting enough prebiotics. Here’s what you want to know.
What is a Prebiotic?
Despite sounding similar, a prebiotic is not a probiotic. Prebiotics are nutrients that get degraded by the microbes in your gut (similar to the bowl of party mix you leave out to keep your guests from getting hangry). However, you won’t find any prebiotics in a typical bowl of party mix – you’ll need to reach for plants. Plants that contain non-digestible carbohydrates, such as fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), galacto-oligosaccharides, or resistant starches, are sources of prebiotics.
If you’re looking for more scientific terms, according to the World Gastrological Organization, a prebiotic is a selectively fermented ingredient that results in specific changes in the composition and/or activity of the gastrointestinal microbiota, thus conferring benefits to host health.
What does a Prebiotic do for You?
When you eat certain plants that contain prebiotic fibers, your health benefits. Some helpful microbes in your gut can ferment these fibers to create compounds that improve your health in many ways.
7 Things Prebiotics Do to Improve Your Health
Improve Gut Lining Barrier
The probiotic Bifidobacterium longum loves to ferment certain fibers (prebiotics) to create short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), such as butyric acid. This is great! Butyrate is the main energy source of the cells that line your colon, ultimately helping improve your gut’s intestinal barrier.
Reduce Inflammation in Colon
Butyric acid also helps reduce inflammation: inflammation in the colon can really be a party pooper.
As the gut microbiome creates more SCFAs from the prebiotics in the plant-based foods you’re eating, there are benefits throughout your body, including energy metabolism, says research.
Reduced Allergy Risk
Eating more fiber helps create more SCFAs, such as propionic acid, which affects immune cells. Propionic acid affects the immune cells, called T helper 2, in your airways and may help with allergic inflammation in the lungs, according to animal research.
Interestingly, research shows a reduced risk of atopic dermatitis, better water retention, and collagen formation in the skin when prebiotic ingestion leads to greater SCFA levels in the body.
Lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol was noted in research as another effect of prebiotics on human health.
Better calcium absorption is another healthy effect of prebiotics, as suggested by some studies.
Which is Better: a Probiotic or Prebiotic?
Growing evidence is showing the massive impact the gut microbiome has on your health. The microbiome is made up of trillions of microbes, many of which need prebiotics in order to thrive. While neither can be helpful without the other, it’s nearly impossible to suggest one is superior.
What is a Natural Prebiotic?
A confusing title, but a natural prebiotic refers to prebiotics found in plants you’re eating, not created synthetically. Many plants naturally contain prebiotics, including garlic, chicory, chickpeas, and almonds. Many of these are suitable for vegans and other diets. For many, prebiotics exist only in small concentrations in their diet, leading to the necessary manufacturing of prebiotics as a means of supplementation.
11 Healthy Prebiotic Foods Worth Eating
There are very few prebiotics in foods. Even though FOS is present in about 36,000 plants, the amount in these plants is not enough to have prebiotic effects. Hence, eating lots of plants is a healthy choice. (Skip the party mix and reach for the veggie and fruit platter to keep the good times rolling). Here are some healthy plants that contain some prebiotics:
- Chicory root
Prebiotics: definition, types, sources, mechanisms, and clinical applications. Foods 2019 Mar; 8(3): 92.
Health effects and sources of prebiotic dietary fiber. Curr Dev Nutr 2018 Mar; 2(3): nzy005.
Bifidobacteria and their role as members of the human gut microbiota. Front Microbiol 2016; 7 :925.
Probiotics and prebiotics. World Gastroenterology Organisation Global Guidelines, Feb 2017.
The role of short-chain fatty acids in the interplay between diet, gut microbiota, and host energy metabolism. J Lipid Res 2013 Sep; 54(9): 2325-40.
Effect of honey in improving the gut microbial balance. Food Quality and Safety 2017 May;1(2):107-115.
Gut microbiota metabolism of dietary fiber influences allergic airway disease and hematopoiesis. Nat Med 2014 Feb; 20(2): 159-66.