August 31, 2023
Your gut health plays a crucial role when it comes to your overall health and wellness. It helps your body with the digestion process, influences your immune system, and is connected directly to your brain.
Trillions of microorganisms live in your large intestine. These bacteria are known as the gut microbiome. To function in a healthy way, your gut needs to have a wide range of microbes that includes more good microbes than bad ones. Evidence suggests that probiotics and prebiotics can help it get both — probiotics because they are beneficial microbes themselves; and prebiotics because they are food for probiotics.
Probiotics usually are bacteria, but they also can be yeasts and possibly other microbes. They ferment foods by converting carbohydrates, such as starch and sugar, into alcohols or acids. In the process, they often change one type of food into another. For example, they change cabbage into sauerkraut.
Not all fermented foods contain probiotics. That’s because some are processed after fermentation in ways that kill the probiotics in them. For example, baking sourdough bread kills the microbes in the dough.
Health benefits associated with eating fermented foods include:
• Improved digestive health
• A stronger immune system
• Decreased risk of heart disease
Studies also have linked two probiotic strains found in fermented foods, Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum, to reduced anxiety and depression symptoms. And other studies have linked probiotic strains, including Actobacillus rhamnosus and Lactobacillus gasseri, to loss of weight and belly fat.
Still, while studies have indicated probiotics may have many health benefits, not enough research has been done to say for sure that they do. Additionally, different strains of probiotics may have different effects, and even one strain may affect some people differently than others.
If you want to add probiotics to your diet, look for foods with live microbes. Yogurt, kefir, uncooked sauerkraut, and traditional kimchi usually contain them. So do some cheeses and pickles.
Just be sure to talk with your doctor before implementing a major dietary change or taking a supplement to address any health issues you may be experiencing.
Prebiotics are types of plant fiber that neither your stomach nor small intestine can break down. That allows them to reach your gut microbiome, which metabolizes and ferments them.
Prebiotics can help your health by providing food for the good bacteria in your gut. That can enable you to better ward off infection in your GI tract and stay regular. It also can boost your immune system.
Additionally, the short-chain fatty acids produced when your gut microbiome metabolizes and ferments prebiotics appear to have multiple health benefits, which include:
• Providing energy to the cells in your large intestine
• Helping your body produce mucus
• Acting as anti-inflammatory agents
• Boosting your immune system
Prebiotics also may produce neurotransmitters that travel between your gut and your brain and:
• Trigger mood changes
• Encourage the creation of hormones that help stimulate and suppress your appetite
• Help your bones grow and absorb calcium and phosphorus
• Help prevent allergies and eczema symptoms
There are many kinds of prebiotics, but three of the most common types are found in resistant starches, inulin, and pectin.
Resistant starches, like fiber, can make it to your large intestine without being digested. Foods that contain them include:
• Potatoes if you boil and chill them
• Green bananas
Inulin is a fiber found in many plants, including:
• Burdock and chicory root
• Dandelion greens
• Jerusalem artichokes (which are tubers, not artichokes)
• Wild yams
Pectin is a gel-like starch found in many fruits that is often used to make jams and jellies. Foods containing it include:
• Green beans
The best way to get prebiotics is by eating some of the numerous foods that contain them. If you eat the recommended daily amount of fiber — 21 to 25 grams for people assigned female at birth, 30 to 38 grams for people assigned male at birth — you’re probably getting enough.
Your gut health plays a big role in your overall health, and evidence suggests that probiotics and prebiotics can help support it. The best way to get both is by eating foods that contain them. If you have a condition that you think probiotic or prebiotic foods or supplements could help you with, talk to your doctor first.