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Prebiotics and Probiotics: What Are They and How Do They Affect My Health?

Updated on December 12, 2016
C L Mitchell profile image

CLMitchell's background is in psychology, human resources, management, research, and the health industry.

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After years of ignoring my mental health issues and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), my health finally became so bad that I was forced to confront my condition and do something about it. So, I began by learning more about my illness. I discovered that there is a growing body of research that indicates our gut bacteria can affect not only our health, but also our mental health and wellbeing.

Research into the relationship between our gut flora and brain sparked interest in 2004 when a study showed that germ-free laboratory mice exhibited an exaggerated response to stress compared to non-germ-free mice. Since then, research into the gut-brain axis, the biochemical signalling that takes place between the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and our central nervous system, has helped us learn more about the importance of bacteria in our gut.

When we hear the word bacteria, we often associate it with something bad, and we spend a lot of time and money trying to kill them. However, there is a huge range of bacteria living in our body that are essential to our health, most of which live in our digestive system. In fact, the GI tract is home to over 100 trillion microorganisms that live inside of us!

The good bacteria help to protect us from the bad bacteria, but in order to maintain good gut health we need at least 80% good vs. 20% bad. However, due to a range of reasons including diet, smoking, alcohol consumption, antibiotics, and stress, the bad bacteria can end up outweighing the good. When this happens it can have a direct impact on our health, affecting our immunity and causing digestive disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease, diarrhoea, IBS, and bowel infections. More recent research has also demonstrated that it can affect our mental health such as anxiety, depression, and stress.

Consult Your Doctor

Always consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet or taking any supplements.

The gut-brain axis
The gut-brain axis | Source

What Are Probiotics?

Probiotics are basically the good bacteria that live in your gut. This good bacterium helps your gut to function. These microbes come in two common varieties, the genus Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterum.

Lactobacillus need to be continually replenished by diet. These species tend to thrive in the guts of people that eat a plant based diet, however, in general, these are often missing or are low in numbers of people who eat a western diet. Lactobacillus are known for helping to metabolize proteins and carbohydrates, enhance the immune system, and fight the nasty pathogens including the bacteria Staphylococcus, Salmonella, and the yeast Candida. They also assist our bodies to process vitamins B and K.

On the other hand, Bifidobacterum normally live in our gut. This species has similar effects as Lactobacillus and can also relieve constipation, prevent both travellers’ diarrhoea and antibiotic-associated diarrhoea, metabolize lactose and ferment indigestible carbohydrates and process B vitamins.

Probiotics can be added to your diet by eating the following foods:

  • Yogurt - Look for yoghurt labelled with ‘live’ or ‘active’ cultures.
  • Buttermilk
  • Kefir - Similar to yogurt, this fermented dairy product is a unique combination of goat’s milk and fermented kefir grains. Very popular in Eastern and Northern Europe.
  • Sauerkraut - Made from fermented cabbage and sometimes other vegetables.
  • Miso Soup - Made from fermented rye, beans, rice or barley.
  • Pickles - Weird, but yes, pickles.
  • Tempeh - Fermented, probiotic-rich grain made from soy beans.
  • Kimchi - A Korean form of pickled sauerkraut.
  • Kombucha Tea - A form of fermented tea.

Lactobacillus | Source

Probiotic Supplements

You can also improve your gut bacteria by taking probiotic supplemented food. However, be aware that foods supplemented with probiotics don’t always work because the bacteria is not always live or in large enough numbers to be able to survive the acid bath inside of your stomach on the journey into your gut. When shopping for food supplemented with probiotics, look for products labelled with ‘live’ or ‘active’ cultures.

Alternatively, you can take probiotic supplements. There are many on the market, but the quality varies, so when choosing a probiotic supplement look for ones that have both Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterum. I choose Bio Kult Probiotics because it contains 14 strains of probiotics with a variety of both Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterum. Each capsule contains a minimum of 2 billion microorganisms.

It’s important to take probiotic supplements with food, as this helps to alleviate the effect of the acid inside of your stomach killing them and preventing them from getting to your gut.

However, before spending your money and time attempting to increase your probiotic levels, your gut already needs to be full of prebiotics. Why? Because probiotics need prebiotics to feed on, otherwise they just die.

What Are Prebiotics?

Prebiotics are un-digestible plant fibres that live inside the large intestine. The probiotics feed on this fibre, so it’s important that there is plenty in your gut for them to eat. Common prebiotics include: inulin, Fructooligosaccharides (FOS), galactooligosaccharides (GOS), lactulose and lafinose.

So how can we maintain a healthy levels of prebiotics? Studies have shown that a diet high in fibre allows the numbers of good bacteria to grow and colonize in the gut. This can lead to increased levels of short fatty acids which ensure good colon health by providing the colonic cells with energy. They also help us to process vitamins such as B and K and also help our immune system to fight off infections.

One of the other benefits of prebiotics is that it can reduce your overeating by controlling blood sugars which help you to feel fuller for longer. It can also help to slow down your digestion, however, further research is needed in this area.

Prebiotics can be added to your diet by eating the following foods:

  • Leeks
  • Chicory root
  • Garlic
  • Artichoke
  • Peas
  • Berries
  • Bananas
  • Kiwi
  • Honey
  • Whole grains (such as oatmeal and barley)
  • Legumes (lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas, navy beans, white beans, black beans, etc.)

Have you tried prebiotic and/or probiotic supplements?

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Prebiotic Supplements

Getting enough prebiotics into your gut can be difficult. However, taking prebiotic supplements is relatively easy. A popular form of prebiotic supplement is inulin (FOS). This is typically sold in the form of chicory root powder. I use Jetsu Organic Chicory Root Powder. The powder is tasteless and very fine, so easily dissolves in water or can be added to food.

Recommended inulin intake is 5 to 10g per day; however, be cautious when you begin taking prebiotic supplements because for those with particularly sensitive guts it can actually cause discomfort, stomach upset, flatulence, and even diarrhoea. So if you’re planning on introducing it into your diet, start with small doses. You should be aware that if you do have an issue with taking inulin, it is commonly used as a food supplement. So, if you experience these symptoms, always check food labels before eating.


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