Healthy Living Makes a Difference

What are Prebiotics?

  • Erika Geisheimer, Blog Coordinator
  • Communications, Good n' Natural Health Food Store

Prebiotics are today’s hot topic when it comes to digestive health. While many have heard about them, there is still confusion that arises as to what they are and how they work. What is the difference between prebiotics and probiotics? Where do prebiotics come from? Why should I take prebiotics? These are often the questions asked when people are contemplating adding prebiotics to their regime or are wanting something to support their intestinal flora. While the term “prebiotic” may seem confusing, having them in your diet is much easier than you may think.

While probiotics are beneficial bacteria that can be used as a supplement to alter intestinal flora temporarily, prebiotics are used to feed the healthy gut flora and help them flourish. Think of prebiotics as the food for probiotics. For healthy gut bacteria to thrive, they need to be fed well to reproduce and colonize the intestinal tract. When more good bacteria are colonizing the gut, harmful bacteria and pathogens will not have room to flourish and will be removed from the intestine. While probiotics are essential during times of antibiotic use, travel, stress, or to help strengthen the immune system, prebiotics should regularly be consumed to feed good bacteria continuously.

So where do these gut heroes come from? Prebiotic nutrients are fructooligosaccharides (FOS), inulin and short-chain fatty acids. Basically, they are found in soluble fibres and some dairy products. Soluble fibre is indigestible by humans, but the bacteria in our gut thrive on it. Making sure to eat your vegetables is very important for good gut health but try including veggies like sweet potato, asparagus, onions, garlic and leeks for their specific fibre content. Using roots like chicory, dandelion and burdock are also great for the gut while Jerusalem artichoke is rich in inulin. Seeds that become gelatinous in water are also great for the intestines as the action of thickening in water shows they are rich in soluble fibre. These seeds include chia, flax and psyllium seed husks. As the good intestinal flora feeds on prebiotics, they produce various metabolites such as short-chain fatty acids. The body uses the short-chain fatty acids as energy, one, in particular, being butyrate which is the primary energy source for colon cells. Butyrate is also a prebiotic and is found in dairy sources especially abundant in butter.

So why is it important to feed the gut flora? It is estimated that the human body contains ten times more microbial bacteria than human cells. This bacteria not only affects the digestion of foods, but our immune system, neurotransmitters, hormones, energy levels and the list goes on. Having a good relationship with these little guys and feeding them well means having a healthier body. Did you know that most of our body’s serotonin (the happy hormone) is produced in the gut? Or that we have a complex bundle of nerves similar to our central nervous system called the enteric nervous system in our gut and the information processed in the intestines comes from the good bacteria that live in it? Feeding the good bacteria with prebiotics will help them flourish while consuming a diet rich in refined sugar, grains and alcohol will feed harmful bacteria in the body that can lead to poor digestion, weakened immune system, bad moods and low energy.

How does one make sure they have enough prebiotics daily? Make sure to include fibre rich foods in your diet aiming for 25-40 grams of fibre daily. The average Canadian is getting less than 15 grams per day! If adding fibre to your diet is challenging, try supplementing using psyllium husks or a fibre blend that you can mix with water or juice. There are some great soluble fibre supplements on the market that do not taste like anything at all! Alternatively, try new breakfast options like chia pudding or overnight oats with chia and flax seeds. On the go? Make a smoothie for breakfast and add chia seeds or ground flax. Add a bit of psyllium fibre or even pureed sweet potato to your muffins or loaves. Just remember to drink plenty of water when consuming more fibre as fibre needs water to help it move along through the digestive tract and clean out the colon. Consuming prebiotics daily can be much easier than you think!