Your Guide to Prebiotics
This article explains what prebiotics are, the different types, and where they come from. It also explains how they work in the body, the benefits, and which foods to eat for maximum digestive health.
Prebiotics are dietary fibers that support digestive health. The bacteria in your gut, known as “gut microbiota,” eat or “ferment” the food you eat. Prebiotics help these bacteria do their job.
Prebiotics and probiotics play different roles in your digestive health. Whereas prebiotics help the friendly bacteria in your gut, probiotics are live bacteria that you can find in certain foods and supplements. Prebiotics are plant fibers that act as fertilizers for bacteria.
The table below illustrates the differences between prebiotics and probiotics.
|are fiber that bacteria feed on||are healthy bacteria that live in your gut|
|are for healthy probiotics in the gut||feed off of prebiotics|
|are not affected by temperature or acidity||can die from certain temperatures or acidity in the gut|
|are present in fruits and vegetables, such as bananas||are present in fermented foods, such as soy or kimchi|
Read more about probiotics here.
Synbiotics are a combination of prebiotics and probiotics. They can take the form of food ingredients or dietary supplements to support your gut bacteria.
Prebiotics work by stimulating the growth or activity of healthy bacteria in the colon. They essentially function as a food source for probiotics, which are live bacteria or microorganisms. These live bacteria ferment the prebiotics, creating a variety of byproducts that are beneficial to your body.
During this process, short chain fatty acids are created. This results in a number of benefits, such as helping inflammation in the body or giving energy to cells in the colon.
Prebiotics are able to modify the environment of the gut by changing the pH, or acidity.
There are a number of ways in which prebiotics are beneficial to human health.
For something to be prebiotic, it needs to have specific qualities, such as:
- a resistance to the acidity of the stomach
- an inability to absorb into the gastrointestinal tract
- an ability to ferment
Prebiotics usually have a number of health benefits, including:
- increasing the good bacteria in the gut, known as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli
- decreasing the number of bad bacteria in the gut
- decreasing the risk of developing allergies
- improving the immune system
- helping regulate bowel movements
- helping the body produce hormones that help with appetite suppression
- absorbing calcium in the bones, thereby improving bone density
- enhancing the anti-inflammatory response in your body
Why are bacteria beneficial in the body?
Bacteria in the gut are beneficial for a number of reasons, such as:
- protecting you from harmful bacteria in the gut
- helping the immune system function correctly
- reducing inflammation
Types of beneficial bacteria include Bifidobacteria and Akkermansia.
There are many types of prebiotics, and most of them are carbohydrates. Types of prebiotics include:
- fructans, which are present in onions and leeks
- galactooligosaccharides, which are present in beans and root vegetables
- starch- and glucose-derived oligosaccharides
- non-carbohydrate oligosaccharides
Prebiotics naturally exist in many foods. These foods include:
- cow and human milk
Prebiotic foods break down into different groups. The sections below outline these in more detail.
These are foods that resist digestion and end up as a food source for the good bacteria in your gut. When they do break down, they produce a compound called butyrate, which is a type of fatty acid.
Butyrate helps with a number of bodily functions, such as:
- water and electrolyte absorption
- anti-inflammation in the body
- immune system function
Resistant starches are present in foods such as:
- green bananas
Inulin is a prebiotic fiber present in many plants. It has a number of benefits, including:
- helping with bowel movements
- lowering cholesterol
- stabilizing blood sugars
- making you feel fuller for longer after eating
Foods containing inulin include:
- wild yams
Pectin is a type of starch that people often use in jams and jellies. It is present in many fruits. Pectin enhances the skin cells in the intestinal lining and decreases the ability of diseases to take root in the gut.
Foods containing pectin include:
There are a number of studies in which prebiotics have helped with certain conditions. Including prebiotics in your diet can boost the good bacteria in your gut, leading to a host of benefits for the body.
Conditions that studies have shown prebiotics to improve include:
- irritable bowel syndrome
- Crohn’s disease
- colorectal cancer
- atopic dermatitis
- hepatic encephalopathy
Prebiotics have also been found to lower the risk of cardiovascular diseases by reducing inflammation in the body.
Because prebiotics act as fertilizers for the microbiota in your gut, eating lots of prebiotic foods at once may induce gas.
The most beneficial effects of including prebiotics in your diet include helping with inflammation in the body, enhancing your gut bacteria, and contributing to good overall digestive health. Prebiotics can “feed” the probiotics in your gut, stimulating growth activity.
Foods that contain prebiotics include potatoes, leeks, peaches, and other starchy carbohydrates. Be sure to include prebiotics, or fruits and vegetables in general, in your diet for a whole host of benefits.