Probiotics get all the press, and with good reason. After all, they’ve been associated with a host of health benefits. But the unsung heroes of the biotics family, prebiotics, are also extremely important. Without them, prebiotics couldn’t function properly. Let’s take a look at what prebiotics are, and how they help you maintain good health.
Of the two types of biotics, prebiotics fly under the radar. When you eat a banana, some asparagus, sauerkraut or another type of food with a lot of fiber, most of the fibers you consume can’t be digested. But they serve as a fuel source for probiotics, which are the beneficial microbes (such as yeast and bacteria) that help make sure the “bad” microbes in your gut (your gastrointestinal tract) don’t take over. If the “bad guys” win, that can lead to a wide range of digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, gas, bloating, diarrhea and others. Even worse, bad microbes can put you at a high risk of developing several different types of serious disease because they can weaken the immune system.
How Do I Get More Prebiotics?
There are a lot of different food sources for both types of biotics. You can find probiotics in fermented, non-pasteurized foods such as yogurt and sauerkraut (yes, sauerkraut is a good source of both probiotics and prebiotics). Prebiotics are easily found in foods on your local grocery store shelves as well. In addition to bananas, asparagus and sauerkraut, you can find prebiotics in oats, onions and garlic.
Other foods that are rich in prebiotics are a little harder to find, such as Chines chives, burdock root, chicory root and Jerusalem artichokes. You’ll probably need to go to a specialty grocery store or a health food store if you have a more adventuresome palate.
But no matter what type of food you seek to increase your prebiotic intake, it’s important to note that you probably won’t be able to get enough through your diet alone. You’d have to eat an awfully high amount of prebiotic-rich foods to get an ample supply. That’s why a lot of people turn to supplements that contain both types of biotics. These include capsules (the most popular and convenient choice), drinks, powders and gummies.
The Benefits of Prebiotics
There’s a growing body of scientific evidence showing that prebiotics can help inhibit the growth of harmful, or pathogenic, microbes in the gut.1 However, prebiotics have been shown to provide other health benefits as well. Here are just a few of them.
Studies suggest that prebiotics help produce cortisol, a hormone that the body produces in stressful situations as a defense mechanism.2 They may also help keep us calm when we encounter emotional stimuli. One study involved 45 adult participants who were given prebiotics or a placebo daily for three weeks. The participants took several different computer tests that researchers used to determine how they reacted to different images meant to evoke strong emotions. According to the results, the people who took the prebiotics paid more attention to the positive images than the negative ones. However, the participants who took the placebo were more reactive to the negative stimuli.3
While the form of biotics most closely associated with digestive health is probiotics, prebiotics can help the gut as well. Prebiotics help form short-chain fatty acids that help keep our bowel movements regular.4 Studies also indicate that taking more prebiotics helps to stimulate the production of beneficial bacteria such as Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, Lactobacillus reuteri and Lactobacillus acidophilus, three strains that have been shown to help reduce symptoms associated with digestive problems such as diarrhea, inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome. 5
Making Bones Stronger
We need critical nutrients such as calcium, magnesium and iron in order to make sure our bones stay as strong as possible. If we don’t get enough of these nutrients, our risk of developing osteoporosis increases. Studies show that consuming eight additional grams of prebiotics on a daily basis can increase the production of calcium.
So the next time you think of biotics, don’t forget prebiotics. The research into the benefits of prebiotics is in its early stages, so there’s a very good chance that scientists will uncover even more ways that prebiotics can help keep us as healthy as possible.