Many Americans make an effort to eat probiotic foods or take a supplement containing these important gut bacteria. The health benefits of maintaining a healthy gut biome, as supported by probiotic supplements, are undeniable. However, there is another less-known supplement that may help your GI tract work at its best: prebiotics. Researchers are just beginning to realize the health benefits of prebiotics for whole-body health.
The Gut-Brain Connection
A well-functioning gastrointestinal system is essential to our health. Our body needs to break food down into the smallest building blocks and absorb these building blocks in order to survive. In addition, gut health has been found to have an effect on our overall health in a variety of ways. Our intestines are a major site of serotonin production, a neurotransmitter which can affect our mood and cognitive function. What's more, the enteric nervous system located in our gut appears to be a major player in endocrine (hormone) regulation. Almost every week brings a new discovery about how important our GI tracts are to our health and well-being.
However, many people in the modern world struggle to achieve healthy digestion, absorption, and elimination, including 60 to 70 million people in the United States alone. Our modern diets don't incorporate enough of the fruits, vegetables and whole grains needed to keep our gut moving at a steady pace. In addition, we are exposed to antibiotics when we are ill, when we clean with antimicrobial cleaners and even in our water. These antibiotics kill gut bacteria, which can compromise our own health.
What Are Prebiotics?
The gut microbiome is an important key to good gastrointestinal function. In our guts live millions of helpful bacteria that perform a variety of essential roles. They help digest food, produce essential vitamins, and contribute to healthy immune function. New research suggests that gut health may be even more important than previously thought, linking the health of our digestive system to healthy weight and even cancer risk.
Probiotics are the "good" bacteria that have been shown to create the best environment when living in our guts. It is important to take a probiotic supplement, but supplementation alone does not guarantee that these beneficial bacteria will thrive. This is where prebiotics come in. Prebiotics function as food for these beneficial bacteria and help to make the intestines a better place for them to live. Prebiotics are indigestible, which means that they are not absorbed into our GI tracts. They are easily fermented by bacteria for energy, ensuring that your probiotic bacteria have the ingredients they need to thrive and help you thrive as well. While most of us eat prebiotics in whole foods such as banana, leeks, onion and garlic, many people do not get enough in their diet and can benefit from a supplement.
The Health Benefits of Prebiotics
New research is showing that the health benefits of prebiotics may extend beyond our gastrointestinal tracts. People who supplement with prebiotics have healthier digestion and are even less likely to be overweight or obese. In addition, prebiotics appear to promote a healthy inflammatory response, helping to lessen the symptoms of a variety of conditions such as asthma. In fact, a recent study found that people who take a prebiotic supplement have lower levels of inflammatory markers in their blood, suggesting significantly less immune overreaction. Other studies have found that prebiotics may promote cardiovascular health and healthy cholesterol levels within normal ranges.
Getting Prebiotics in Your Diet
There are a few ways that you can get more prebiotics in your diet. First, you can choose foods that are rich in these indigestible starches. Second, you can switch from a probiotic supplement to one that provides both prebiotics and probiotics. Many people prefer these supplements because it makes sense to swallow the bacteria's "food" along with the bacteria. In addition, taking a single supplement is just simpler.
If you seek optimal health both in your GI tract and the rest of your body, taking a prebiotic supplement may be beneficial. It makes sense to feed the bacteria that help your body to thrive in so many diverse ways.