‘Probiotic’ has been the buzzword in natural health circles for the past few years, but as interest in gut health expands, more attention is being paid to the role of prebiotics.
If you’re interested in nourishing a well-balanced microbiome, read on to learn how prebiotic food and prebiotic supplements can help your friendly microbes flourish.
Prebiotic is the umbrella term for types of dietary fibre which act as food for the so-called good bacteria in our gut.
In other words, while probiotics replenish the live bacteria that make up our microbiome, prebiotics sustain them and facilitate their proliferation.
The most widely-studied prebiotics include inulin, fructo-oligosaccharide (FOS) and galacto-oligosaccharides.
Prebiotics are non-digestible for humans, but our resident bacteria eat them up just fine. Ensuring an adequate supply of prebiotics to the friendly microbial critters living in our guts is like providing valuable resources to a team of builders carrying out work.
By keeping the good bacteria well-fed, we can better enable them to:
• Protect us from damaging bacteria, fungi and pathogens
• Strengthen our immune system
• Enhance digestion
• Tamp down inflammation
• Regulate our mood
There are, needless to say, many more benefits associated with resident good bacteria – some observed anecdotally, others highlighted in large-scale clinical trials.
In a way, the benefits of prebiotics are identical to those of probiotics: for without proper nourishment, probiotic bacteria cannot perform their duties efficiently.
That said, only certain combinations of prebiotics are known to enhance probiotic survival and growth.
What Are Synbiotics?
Incidentally, the combined intake of probiotics and prebiotics has its own term – ‘synbiotics.’ An increasing number of naturopathic practitioners suggest synbiotics – rather than probiotics or prebiotics – hold the most promise.
They point to the net health benefit of utilising these synergistic ingredients to enhance our wellbeing. In one interesting study from 2016, the use of synbiotics led to an improved serum lipid profile in patients with type 2 diabetes.
It is not just that prebiotics can help beneficial bacteria to multiply; prebiotic fibre also stimulates the release of metabolic byproducts which could have a positive impact on our cognitive health.
In early 2018, one market research firm estimated the global prebiotic market at $5.5 billion – and it’s set to grow.
Although it is important to consume both probiotics and prebiotics, prebiotics have been associated with their own unique benefits.
Prebiotics and Sleep
The sleep-promoting effects of prebiotics is said to stem from their ability to buffer the physiological impact of stress.
Although this area of research is relatively new, it is very promising. The first study suggesting a link between prebiotics and sleep quality came from the University of Colorado Boulder in 2017.
Researchers discovered that dietary probiotics improved non-REM and REM sleep in rats following a stressful event.
Further trials are currently in the works to stress-test the effect of prebiotics in regulating sleep quality.
Based solely on their study, the UCB researchers say “a diet rich in prebiotics started in early life could improve sleep, support the gut microbiota and promote optimal brain health.”
Dr. Michael Mosley, intrigued by the findings, performed his own experiment with a prebiotic supplement containing galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS). Dr Mosley went from spending 79% of his time in bed asleep to 92%, just five days after taking the formula.
Prebiotics and SCFAs
According to a Japanese study, comparatively small doses of prebiotics could increase our production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) by ‘turning on’ the metabolism of colonic microbiota.
Short-chain fatty acids are known as key players in the microbiome, though the anti-inflammatory molecular messengers are involved in interactions beyond the gut too – helping us to regulate water and absorb minerals, for example.
Their main responsibility, however, is to serve as an energy source for cells within the colon.
The Japanese study learned that consuming 0.2%/6g of daily prebiotics could ramp up SCFA production while also lowering colonic pH to assist with the growth of probiotic strains.
While there is no firm scientific consensus on how much prebiotic fibre we should consume on a daily basis, 6g is considered an achievable – even modest – intake.
Analysis of fossilised dung suggests our hunter-forager ancestors were consuming 135g per day of prebiotics in the form of inulin! Due to the typical modern diet, most of us are lucky if we manage 4 or 5 grams!
Prebiotics for IBS
Prebiotics are sometimes suggested for those suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), the world’s most common – and perhaps least well understood – gastrointestinal disorder. Symptoms of IBS include stomach cramps, diarrhoea, flatulence and bloating.
The problem is that fibre in itself can cause similar symptoms, and so there is a risk of prebiotics having a counterproductive effect – particularly when consumed in high doses.
Most of the prebiotic studies to date have been conducted on healthy people rather than those with conditions such as Crohn’s, IBS etc, so there is an element of guesswork involved.
Perhaps the best thing to do if you suffer from IBS is consume prebiotics in moderation and assess your tolerance. This applies to both prebiotic foods and supplements. You will soon learn whether the net effect is positive or negative.
Interestingly, a 2018 study by the University of Memphis found that daily supplementation of 15g of oligofructose – a prebiotic fibre from chicory roots – provided a laxative benefit to adults aged between 18 and 65. And none of the participants noted any gastrointestinal distress.
As well as experimenting with prebiotics, those keen to combat IBS might also consider upping their vitamin D intake.
A sublingual supplement is your best hope of quickly elevating blood levels.
Prebiotics for Infants
Perhaps the bulk of the research into prebiotics concerns their usage among the younger population – infants and toddlers specifically.
There was the Italian study from earlier this year which illustrated how a prebiotic formula blend offered protection against respiratory infections.
The combination of galacto-oligosaccharide and polydextrose reduced the incidence of respiratory infections compared to infants receiving a regular formula. The rate of atopic dermatitis was also reduced by 35% in the study group.
What’s more, the prebiotics stimulated beneficial Bifidobacteria and Clostridium microbes in the gut.
And it’s not the only study showing the benefits of prebiotics for infants. Another, published in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience, indicated that formula milk enriched with prebiotics might boost brain development.
Although the research was on piglets rather than humans, the same combination prebiotic was used: galacto-oligosaccharide and polydextrose.
Supplemented pigs exhibited better object recognition (i.e. more curiosity) and more exploratory behaviour, as observed by scientists at the University of Illinois, Urbana.
Apparently piglets were selected because of the close similarities to humans in terms of digestive systems, brain development and nutritional requirements. Who knew?
Of course, babies who are breastfed already receive an incredibly valuable prebiotic in the form of Human Milk Oligosaccharides (HMOS), of which there are some 200 individual types.
Like other prebiotics, HMOS helps to ensure a desirable balance of wholesome bacteria in the baby’s gut, as well as helping to build up their still-developing immune system.
Some baby formulas are fortified with prebiotics, although natural is definitely best. Countless studies have proven that breastfed infants are better protected against infection than formula-fed infants.
Naturally it is always wise to consult your doctor about giving prebiotics (or indeed probiotics) to your little one.
Food Sources of Prebiotics
There is no shortage of prebiotic-rich foods for you to enjoy, and the best part is most of them are incredibly nutritious – rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Examples of prebiotic foods include:
• Butter beans
• Chicory root
• Chickpeas and hummus
• Dandelion greens
• Under-ripe bananas
• Raw garlic
• Whole oats
• Acacia gum
• Burdock root
• Lima beans
With so much choice, there really is no excuse to avoid prebiotic foods. Most of the foods listed above contain inulin, although some also contain fructo-oligosaccharide.
Again, with reference to those suffering from IBS, it is worth experimenting with prebiotics to assess your tolerance; in certain cases, some types of fibre may exacerbate symptoms.
Are Prebiotic Supplements Necessary?
With so many prebiotic foods to choose from, you may wonder whether it is worth stocking up on a dedicated prebiotic supplement.
Most supplements contain one or more isolated prebiotic fibre sources and are a good alternative for those who wish to up their intake of specific strains.
Supplements may also be required to obtain the therapeutic doses used in several of the aforementioned studies. That is, unless you are eating around 10 portions of vegetables and fruit per day, including at least 3 prebiotic-rich foods.
One group who may not require supplements are raw dieters, since raw foods tend to contain much more prebiotic fibre than cooked ones. A raw dieter eating 5-7 portions of fruit and vegetables will likely consume all the prebiotic fibre they need. Ditto those consuming raw food supplements.
Progurt Prebiotic: A Natural Sweetener
Prebiotic supplements come in many forms, including liquid form. The prebiotic manufactured by Progurt – makers of the world’s strongest probiotic – is worth looking at.
Described as a probiotic-stimulating syrup and made entirely from natural ingredients, Progurt Prebiotic contains three well-studied fibres: galacto-oligosaccharides, gluco-oligosaccharides and fructo-oligosaccharides.
You can use Progurt Prebiotic to add taste to your Progurt probiotic yogurt, bowl of oats, smoothie or cottage cheese. You can also add to water and drink, or eat directly off the spoon.
The prebiotic is formulated to promote the growth of healthy Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria within the gut. It is vegan-friendly and contains no milk, egg, wheat, soy or gluten.
Whether you opt for a supplement or not, prebiotics offer plenty of promise as far as gut health is concerned. Maintaining the natural balance of your microbiome will help with sleep, stress, energy, immunity and much more besides. Prioritise both pre and probiotics and your body will thank you.