Probiotics & Prebiotics: What’s the deal?
As we are approaching the new year, it should not be a surprise that we are going to start seeing advertisements for flashy new workout equipment and “life changing” supplements. As a nutrition major, people approach me quite often to ask me the most random nutrition questions; especially this time of year.
“What new diet should I try in the New Year?”
“Is it true that fish oil makes you smarter?”
The list goes on, and on. Every once in a while though, I will get a question about probiotics and prebiotics. What they are, how they work, and why everyone keeps talking about them. So, today I am going to go over the basics, why and how they work, and how to get them into your diet.
Probiotics: These happy little cells are good bacteria! They live inside our guts (our colon, to be specific). And they help us digest foods that we normally can’t digest, and fight off infectious bacteria, viruses, and fungi. There is also emerging evidence showing that they play a role in our emotional wellness! There are also all kinds of different species living in our gut right now; so a balanced gut is a happy gut. Now if you’re wondering how they got there, you’re not alone. The relationship that we have with the bacteria in our gut is a type of symbiotic relationship called mutualism! This is one where both species in the relationship benefit. The gut living in our bacteria have a safe and warm place to live, and we get added protection from harmful and infectious bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Over our lifetime we get bacteria into our gut through the foods we eat.
Prebiotics: This is the food that the bacteria eat, it keeps them nourished and allows them to continue growing and protect us. Prebiotics are different types of carbohydrates that our bodies can’t digest. By the time the food gets to our gut, our bacteria digest them for us so we can pass them without any discomfort.
Why it Matters:
Although there is a lot of information covered above, it is just a small introduction to probiotics and prebiotics. More importantly, it is crucial to understand why they matter! Besides the protection from infectious disease; the bacteria living in our guts produce short chain fatty acids which are tiny little molecules that directly feed the cells that make up our colon. Without these, our cells would be really “hungry” and we would experience a lot of digestive discomfort. Additionally, having a balanced gut means we won’t experience common gut discomfort. When I say a “balanced” gut, I mean one that has just enough of each species of bacteria. If there is too much of one, or not enough of another; our gut becomes unbalanced and we start to experience gut discomfort. This is why it is important to have a small daily dose of probiotic and prebiotic rich foods.
Where to Get Them:
Probiotics: Probiotic rich foods are usually foods that are fermented. These would be things like yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kiefer. If you do go for a commonly probiotic-rich food, go for something that has not been pasteurized. Although Pasteurization is super cool and great for things like dairy milk, it is a process in which any potential bacteria (good or bad) in a food is killed with heat.
Prebiotics: Prebiotic food sources can be found in a lot of different things. Try bananas, leeks, berries, asparagus, garlic, and onions!
Finally, I should cover probiotic supplements. These are usually powders, pills, or beverages. Unfortunately, the supplement industry is one that is not well regulated and often looks like the Wild West. Although a bottle of probiotics in the pharmacy may look appealing, there is a chance that it might not actually contain what the label says. When it comes to probiotics and prebiotics, it is best to stick to food sources. Let us know what your favorite probiotic rich foods are at Healthy.UNH@unh.edu!