Keeping up with gut health is almost a full-time job. Many of us were just getting a handle on probiotics, and now we’re supposed to understand and care about prebiotics too?
In short: Yes. But what are prebiotics? How are they different from probiotics? And more importantly: What role do they play in keeping your gut—along with the rest of your body and mind—happy, healthy, and strong? In this quick article, we’re going to dive into those very questions.
Let’s get started.
Wait: What are Prebiotics? And How are they Different from Probiotics?
Let’s start with the basics: Your gut is home to a host of bacteria, both beneficial and harmful, and this bacterial ecosystem is called the gut microbiota.
The health of your gut microbiota determines the health of your gut. And the health of your gut determines the wellbeing of the rest of the body. So whether you want to lose weight, fight inflammation, or reduce anxiety, the solution starts with your gut bacteria.
Both probiotics and prebiotics play an important, symbiotic role in restoring and maintaining your gut health. But before we get into what exactly prebiotics do, let’s quickly go over probiotics.
Probiotics are living bacteria supplements taken to reinforce the good bacteria already living in your gut. They help restore balance in the gut microbiota by crowding out bad bacteria, fighting inflammation, and aiding in digestion.
Prebiotics are a little different: Unlike probiotics, prebiotics are not living, nor are they bacteria. The easiest way to understand prebiotics is to think of them as fuel or food for good bacteria.
More specifically: Prebiotics are human-indigestible fibers that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria.
The 7 Biggest Benefits & Advantages of Prebiotics
Alright: We know what prebiotics are and—broadly speaking—what they do. But let’s dig a little deeper into the health benefits of prebiotic fibers. Here are seven reasons prebiotics are an essential part of good gut health. (If you need your own trusted prebiotics, this is what I use and love.)
#1: Prebiotics Feed Your Gut Flora
I know: I touched on this above. But I can’t overstate how important it is. Good bacteria heals the gut from inflammation, defends the body from disease, and absorbs vital nutrients from your diet.
However—and this is a big however—beneficial bacteria can only do this if they can survive the harsh ecosystem of your gut. And modern diets—coupled with an over-reliance on antibiotics—mean many of us suffer from an imbalanced microbiota.
That’s why prebiotics are so important: Although they don’t directly impact your gut, they enable your gut bacteria to win the war over your gut health. And on top of that: Without the fuel prebiotic provide, there’s a good chance any probiotics you take won’t survive long enough to make a difference.
#2: Prebiotics are Extremely Sturdy
Probiotics are living things and, as a result, are very fragile. You make take a supplement that provides 10 billion CFU, but the number of probiotics that actually survive the trip to your gut is often very small.
Prebiotics, on the other hand, are hardy little fibers. They’re built to withstand heat, cold, and—most importantly—acid. No matter how unhealthy your gut, prebiotics are likely to survive the journey from mouth-to-gut and benefit the good bacteria that call it home.
#3: Prebiotics Boost Immunity
An overwhelming 80% of your immune system lies in the gut. By empowering your gut flora, you also boost your immunity to a host of diseases, infections, and health conditions.
Take cancer, for instance: Although studies are still underway, current research seems to suggest that prebiotics may reduce the concentration of cancer-promoting enzymes.
But the benefits don’t stop there: Prebiotics have also been found to play a part in the successful treatment of irritable bowel syndrome and Chron’s Disease, and may be beneficial in treating osteoporosis and diabetes.
#4: Prebiotics Increase Digestive Health
You’ve heard it since you were two: Everybody poops. But here’s the part no one tells you: Everybody poops, but not everybody poops well.
Prebiotics have been linked not only to more consistent bowel movements but also to healthier stool samples. And that makes sense: After all, how many times have you been told that the secret to good digestion is fiber?
Working together, soluble and insoluble prebiotic fibers lead to better digestion, less constipation, reduced inflammation, and better mineral absorption.
#5: Prebiotics Help Manage Weight
Carrying around some extra weight? Prebiotics might be the answer.
High fiber intake has long been linked to lower body weight. But recent research has also found that prebiotic-containing foods often lead to feeling “full” faster, making it easier to overcome those often-overwhelming hunger pangs.
Some probiotics—such as akkermansia muciniphila—have even been found to encourage natural, healthy weight loss. And when supplemented with complimentary prebiotics, this effect is only compounded.
Want to learn more about the role of akkermansia muciniphila in weight loss? I’ve got you covered: Check out Akkermansia Muciniphila: The Anti-Inflammatory, Metabolism-Boosting Gut Bacterium!
#6: Prebiotics Reduce Inflammation
Heart disease. Alzheimer’s. Diabetes. Fibromyalgia. Cancer.
What do these five seemingly-unrelated health conditions have in common? Inflammation. Links between chronic inflammation and a growing number of health conditions means we need to stop treating inflammation like a symptom of a problem and start treating it as the root of the problem.
As I mentioned above, inflammation often starts in the gut. And if the problem starts in the gut, you probably know where the solution starts. And the research backs it up: The benefits of prebiotics have been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect in the gut and beyond.
#7: Prebiotics Balance Moods and Emotional Health
Although research into the connection between the gut and the brain is still in its infancy, early findings paint a pretty clear picture: Many mood disorders, including anxiety and depression, are often related to or rooted in gut health.
Your gut metabolizes and utilizes the nutrients from your diet, and those nutrients play a vital role in the production and function of neurotransmitters like the “happiness hormone” serotonin. In fact, 90% of serotonin—which helps regulate mood, relaxation, appetite, and sleep—is produced in the gut.
When your gut is imbalanced, so are your hormones and neurotransmitters. And when your hormones and neurotransmitters are out of whack, your emotions often feel like a roller coaster.
But by taking steps to heal your gut—such as probiotic and prebiotic supplementation—you can help ensure not only a healthy body but also a healthy mind.
7 Examples of Prebiotics
Okay: Now that you understand what prebiotics do, you’re probably pretty eager to start giving your gut the fiber it needs. That’s great!
But first, you need to know what to look for. Although what exactly qualifies as a prebiotic is still up for debate in the scientific community, here are seven of the commonly-agreed upon candidates:
- Inulin (this is pretty typically found in fruit, easy!),
- Xylo-oligosaccharides (this fiber is a powerhouse, it lines the gut with good bacteria but also helps prevent bad bacteria from setting up shop),
Don’t worry: You don’t have the memorize that list. But as you start looking for ways to introduce more prebiotics into your diet, it helps to have a general idea of what to look for.
The Best Sources of Prebiotics
I’m gonna go out on a limb here and assume at least one of the prebiotic benefits above resonated with you. If so, you’re probably itching to know how you can introduce more prebiotics to your gut.
If so, there are two things you need to take control over – diet and supplementation.
Here’s the catch: Notice how I didn’t say “diet or supplementation.” To get the biggest benefit, you’ll want to incorporate prebiotic-rich foods into your diet while also supplementing them with, well, supplements.
Let’s talk about both.
The Best Prebiotic Foods
Generally speaking, prebiotics are most abundant in raw fruits, vegetables, and roots. Here are three of the best food sources for prebiotics:
- Raw chicory root – Despite an unusual name, chicory root has a familiar flavor: Many people are surprised to find it tastes like coffee. You can find raw chicory root in powder or pill form at most health stores.
- Raw Jerusalem artichoke – The name can be a little misleading: Jerusalem artichokes aren’t actually artichokes at all. They’re actually an edible tuber that just happens to taste like an artichoke. You can find this specialty item in health stores and gourmet supermarkets.
- Raw dandelion greens – Although considered a weed by most, dandelions are rich in nutrients and fibers. Like the two above, dandelion greens can most easily be found in health stores. Quick tip: Due to their acidic taste, it’s usually a good idea to mix them into a salad, sandwich, or soup.
Although the three options listed are the best natural sources for prebiotics, they’re not your only option. You can also find prebiotics in more common foods, such as:
- Green bananas,
- Barley (no, beer doesn’t count), and
Incorporating these foods into your diet can go a long way in boosting the prebiotics in your gut. But even so, diet alone often isn’t enough to reach optimum gut health. To really get the most from prebiotics, you’re also going to want to take some sort of supplement.
The Best Prebiotic Supplements
Supplements are a topic I broach with cautious passion. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a huge fan of—and advocate for—supplementation. But, as my we like to say, most supplements are just expensive urine.
Anyone who’s ever wasted $65+ on a bottle only to find themselves peeing all the vitamins and minerals out in a golden stream can attest to this.
All of this to say: There’s a lot of snake oil out there so, when deciding on a prebiotic supplement, do your homework. Here are three questions you’ll want to answer before making an investment:
- What’s in this? You’re probably not going to find a single supplement with all seven fibers mentioned above. That’s fine: You don’t need all seven, and no one strand is better than the others. You just want to make sure at least one of those fibers is represented in concentrations of about 750mg or more.
- Is the brand reputable? You’re probably not going to find a supplement line with perfect reviews, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do research. Find a brand that’s honest, not one offering a “miracle cure.” Then do some digging: What do other people have to say about them?
- Have their supplements been clinically tested? This is a tough one: Most supplement lines have not had their active ingredients clinically tested because, well, the results wouldn’t be pretty. But there are those out there who are proud of their products and have the research to back it up.
Whew! Let’s review …
You made it to the end! Congratulations. 2,000 words later, I hope you feel at least a little more knowledgeable about one of the most important aspects of gut health: Prebiotic fibers.
I’ve covered a lot in the last 10 minutes, so let’s go ahead and summarize the main points before we wrap this up:
- Prebiotics are fibers that feed, fuel, and empower the good bacteria in your gut.
- They have a range of health benefits, from weight loss to boosted immunity, and reduced inflammation to more balanced moods.
- The best prebiotic food sources are chicory root, Jerusalem artichokes, and dandelion greens.
- The best prebiotic supplements provide at least one of the seven fibers listed above in doses of 750mg or more. You can learn more about our recommended gut health supplements here.
And with that, you’re as much a prebiotic expert as you need to be to start benefiting from these amazing fibers.
Creating lasting change can seem daunting at first. Learning about gut health and how to heal the gut lining is not always as simple as eating more veggies. So, as always, feel free to contact me with any questions you may have.
Wishing you the best health and the most happiness