You keep hearing about probiotics, and now, prebiotics, but what exactly are these foods?
What do they do?
“The key to a healthy gut is nourishing the microbiome bacteria,” said Dawn Flickema, MD, Avera Medical Group Integrative Medicine. “When your gut is healthy, you feel better. At the same time, it’s better to develop a long-term plan for diet that includes pre- and probiotics regularly – they don’t offer any short-term solutions to gut health.”
Probiotics Versus Prebiotics: What’s the Difference?
Probiotic foods have active colonies of bacteria. When you eat or drink them, those colonies join the trillions of tiny residents already at work in your esophagus, stomach and intestines.
“Most fermented foods offer probiotic benefits, but it varies greatly,” said Becky Hanzen, a health coach with Avera Medical Group Integrative Medicine. “There are many food preservation methods, and some remove beneficial bacteria.”
In most cases, people make probiotic-rich foods by simply adding salt to a food in a container and letting chemistry do the rest. Fruits and vegetables contain bacteria, and when they no longer have access to oxygen, those natural bacteria convert carbs and sugars in whole foods into acids. Those acids make ideal environments for preserved food.
In short: fermentation.
“We recommend getting in at least one to three servings of fermented foods each week, with a typical serving of about a half-cup,” Hanzen said. “But more probiotics are better for almost everyone.”
The Role of Prebiotics
Prebiotics are not foods, exactly, but the fibers in food that our bodies cannot digest.
They serve as raw fuel for the “good guy” bacteria keeping our gut happy and healthy.
“They feed our bacteria, and continue important work of supporting gut health,” Flickema said. “Eating 25 and 45 grams of fiber every day will give your gut what it needs.”
Optimal operation in the microbiome happens when prebiotic and probiotic foods are regular or daily parts of what you eat, Flickema added.
Pre and Probiotic Supplements Can Offer (Some) Help
Some people don’t get proper amounts of either of these important nutrients in their regular diet. That’s when prebiotic and probiotic supplements can help.
“We recommend varieties of probiotics that offer at least 10 billion colony forming units per dose,” said Hanzen. “But we would stress: do not use a supplement as your only source. It’s important to really get fruits and vegetables into your diet, in their organic forms. In order to get a variety of pre- and probiotics and feed our gut garden, you will need to eat more vegetables and fruit.”
Supplements that have 10 billion colony forming units, or more, can help. But listening to your body is more important than anything else. If a supplement of that size leads to upset stomach, cut the dose in half.
“You’re adding ‘new bugs’ to the garden of your gut, so to speak,” Hanzen said. “You might need to work up to the full dose.”
Unlike probiotics, there are no recommended prebiotic supplements. The wide variety of these unique nutrients means that your gut’s system may not like one set that are part of a prefabricated easy-to-buy supplement. That’s why working with a doctor or health coach can help you best understand the changes you experience.
“We can’t rely on just supplements. If we do, we’ll miss out on the wide variety that we need,” said Hanzen.
Good gut health is always a combination platter, so to speak, in that pre- and probiotics play roles, but other factors are important. Reducing stress and getting rest helps, and diet restrictions can be effective methods, too.
“You should strive to avoid processed foods, and to reduce sugar and alcohol because they’re toxins to your good gut microbes,” Flickema said. “Diets that include more plant-based foods are going to be better for gut health, too. There’s new focus on the roles of pre- and probiotics, but the health of your gut doesn’t revolve solely around these two pieces of the puzzle. We all need more of both.”
Talk to your provider, health coach or registered dietitian to see if these foods are right for you.