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You’ve likely heard of probiotics, but what about their counterpart: prebiotics? Prebiotic foods for gut health are an essential part of a healthy diet!
Essentially, prebiotics are food for your gut bacteria. They actually feed the good microbes in your gut! Prebiotics are a group of nutrients that are degraded by gut microbiota. Their relationship with human overall health is an area of increasing interest in recent years. They feed the intestinal microbiota, and their degradation products are short-chain fatty acids that release into blood circulation, consequently, affecting not only the gastrointestinal tracts but also other distant organs (study).
Your body actually cannot break down the fiber in prebiotic foods. Instead, they pass through your small intestine undigested and once they reach your colon, ferment in your gut. This fermentation process feeds the good bacteria which allows them to survive and multiply in the gut. This process also creates short chain fatty acids such as butyrate, acetate, and propionate as a byproduct. These short chain fatty acids are super beneficial for gut health as they can help promote regular bowel movements, support a healthy gut lining, and help with the absorption of nutrients.
The three most common and researched prebiotics in food for gut health are:
While we know prebiotic foods feed the good bacteria in the gut, a common myth is that they can also feed the harmful bacteria. In order for bacteria to break down a prebiotic and use it as food, they must contain certain enzymes. Most harmful microbes don’t have these enzymes, however the beneficial ones do!
Needless to say, their impact on gut integrity makes them an important player in optimal health! Like probiotics, prebiotic foods enhance gut health, which affects every other aspect of the body. This includes immunity, digestion, brain function, heart health, and more!
Probiotics are all the rage nowadays. So, I know you’re wondering, “Are they the same as prebiotics?” Prebiotics are just as essential as probiotics, but for different reasons. Probiotics are live microorganisms that live in your gut and encourage a healthy balance of gut bacteria. Probiotic rich food repopulates the good bacteria in your gut because it contains the actual strains of bacteria. However, prebiotics serve as food for the probiotics. They help the healthy gut bugs thrive! As a result, you’re left with healthy, strong gut bacteria. So in short, probiotics equals live good bacteria, whereas prebiotics equals food for the good bacteria.
Prebiotics work to feed the good bacteria in your gut. When there are enough prebiotics for the gut to do their job well, you’ll likely experience a range of health benefits, like:
The health of your gut directly affects your immune system. 80% of the immune system is actually located in the gut microbiome! Prebiotics improve immune function by increasing the good gut bacteria, reducing overall stress in the body, and strengthening its response to pathogens. Prebiotics are shown to increase the expression of anti-inflammatory cytokines and reduce pro-inflammatory cytokines.
Prebiotics, in addition to probiotics, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and affect the lipid profile in the body. Certain strains of prebiotics can lower triglycerides and LDL cholesterol levels, which is bad cholesterol. They can also raise HDL cholesterol levels, which is good cholesterol.
Have you ever heard of leaky brain? While closely connected to leaky gut, leaky brain causes mood disorders, anxiety, depression, brain fog, and more. Improving the balance of bacteria in your gut has a direct impact on your brain function and mood stability. The bacteria in your gut ferments prebiotics, which then creates short chain fatty acids as a byproduct. Those short chain fatty acids stimulate the release of serotonin from your brain, which is the happy hormone. In fact, 90% of serotonin is found within the gut! This is why the microbiome is also known as the second brain.
Prebiotics promote regular digestion, AKA keep your bowel movements steady. Ideally, you should have 1-3 bowel movements each day. Increased good bacteria in the gut fights the harmful bacteria and improves the balance of your gut microbiome. Constipation is related to an imbalanced microbiome, so fueling the good gut bacteria with prebiotics can help to soothe constipation. In a recent study, they found that prebiotics alone increase weekly bowel movement frequency and improve consistency.
The presence of prebiotics increases the absorption of nutrients, such as calcium and magnesium. As a result, the risk of nutrient deficiency and its consequences is significantly lower. Fructooligosaccharides (FOS) are calcium absorption boosters. They help to enhance the bioavailability of calcium in your body without affecting the absorption of other minerals such as iron and zinc.
More so, prebiotics can be helpful in improving skin conditions and digestive issues, as well as aiding in weight loss!
Luckily, prebiotics are readily available in many delicious foods we enjoy today. The foods with the highest amounts of bioavailable prebiotics, include:
Chicory root contains high amounts of the prebiotic fiber inulin, which can improve digestion, bowel function, and liver detoxification. I suggest trying sipping on chicory root tea. It has a distinct flavor that works wonderfully as a steeped tea.
Jerusalem artichoke is also known as the sunroot, sun apple, or earth apple. It provides about 2 grams of inulin prebiotic fiber per 100 grams. It’s also rich in potassium and thiamine. Shred jerusalem artichoke onto salads or mix into smoothies.
Onions are rich in prebiotics, antioxidants, and flavonoids, and nutrient dense. They contain inulin and FOS, which as we know strengthens the gut. They’re also rich in the antioxidant flavonoid, Quercetin. .Add onion into your favorite stir-frys or on top of salads or sandwiches, or just about anywhere else.
Garlic is a prebiotic herb with antimicrobial effects. To reap the nutritional benefits, it’s best to eat it raw. Or you can crush or chop it and let it sit. This activates a beneficial enzyme that supports the gut. Mix raw garlic into your favorite veggie dishes.
Slightly unripe bananas are a huge source of prebiotics for gut health. They contain prebiotic resistant starch. You can mix them into smoothies or add them to baked goods.They’re also high in fiber, potassium, and other vitamins and minerals.
Jicama is a crunchy snack that’s as a cross between a potato and an apple. It’s rich in prebiotic fiber, vitamin C, and amino acids. Raw jicama is a great snack with homemade hummus or guacamole.
Leeks are rich in kaempferol, a beneficial and anti-inflammatory flavonoid. They also contain high inulin content, making them a great prebiotic food source. Leeks are in the same family as onions and garlic and you can add them to almost any dish for extra prebiotics and flavor.
Asparagus contains high amounts of inulin along with other important vitamins and minerals. It’s a great gut-healthy veggie option. Roasted asparagus is also a nutrient-packed side dish for any meal.
Tomatoes feed the good bacteria in your gut and also help the bacteria attach themselves to the intestinal walls. You can add raw tomatoes to sandwiches or salads. Or, you can also make your own homemade salsa with chopped tomatoes.
Since prebiotics are abundant in foods today, supplementation is typically not necessary. In fact, too much of a good thing can turn bad, and that is often the case with prebiotics. When you consume too many prebiotics, the risk of dysbiosis (imbalanced gut bacteria) increases. When incorporating more prebiotics into your diet, start slowly. Adding too many at once can cause temporary digestive upset or bloating. Note: Those with diagnosed SIBO or dysbiosis should consult their healthcare professional before introducing more prebiotics into their diet!
When it comes to optimal health (physical and mental), prebiotics are just as important as probiotics. Yet, they serve different purposes. You can’t have one without the other, which is why a healthy balance is necessary! For more guidance on including an appropriate balance of prebiotics into your diet, I encourage you to sign up for my Monthly Meal Plan Subscription, where all the guesswork is taken out and the meal planning is done for you. You can learn more, here!
"When it comes to balancing our body, healing the gut, reversing autoimmunity, and achieving optimal health—we are a lot like a car that won’t run right. In order to fix the problem once and for all instead of relying on jumper cables, we must get underneath the hood, run the diagnostics, and replace the battery so that it runs good as new."
-Nikki Yelton, RD
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