Gut Health: Prebiotics and Probiotics

Just like the rhino and those tick eating birds that ride on their backs (oxpeckers!) we humans live in a symbiotic relationship with other organisms, many other organisms in fact! 

The human gut microbiome is made up of around a thousand different species of bacteria.  These bacteria are essential not only to gastrointestinal (GI) health but also have a role in decreasing inflammation and prevention of illness; they are crucial to the proper balance of the human body. 

So how can you help keep your approximately 100 trillion gut bacteria happy and healthy? 

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That’s where prebiotics come in.  Like all living things, the bacteria that live within us need to be fed.  The foods that promote a healthy microbiome are rich in fiber and indigestible starch.  Because these foods are not digested by the human body, they pass through the digestive system and the bacteria will utilize them for nutrients.  The foods rich in prebiotics are plentiful and a short list includes leafy greens, berries, oats, dark chocolate, asparagus, leaks, onions, garlic, apples, corn…the list goes on and on! 

We now know that we need prebiotics, but what about probiotics? 

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These are foods, or supplements, that contain actual live bacteria that can take up residence in the gut.  First, let’s talk about how the bacteria made its way into our gut in the first place.  During birth a large volume of bacteria is introduced into the GI tract, subsequently, the microbiome is further diversified by what the infant is fed and is fairly established by age 3 years old.  Now back to foods that contain actual probiotics; they are those that are fermented such as yogurt, kombucha, sauerkraut, or kimchi.

Should we eat these foods or take a probiotic supplement? 

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The short answer is that if you are already eating these foods and you feel well, then great, keep it up!  There really is no reason to take a probiotic if you have no GI complaints given that you already have all the healthy gut flora you need.  But if you have symptoms of bloating, constipation, or loose stool, probiotics are something to consider in conjunction with a discussion with your doctor.  Most research surrounding probiotics for adults is not based on population evidence (yet!), so recommendations are made on a person-to-person basis.  For certain conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, small bacterial overgrowth syndrome or diarrhea associated with antibiotics (good evidence here) there can be a role.  If you are struggling with gut health, talk to your doctor or a dietician about whether introducing probiotic foods or a probiotic supplement might be right for you. 

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