The field of digestive health is finally getting the recognition it deserves. Disruptions to the digestive system have been implicated as a critical factor in seemingly unrelated disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, food allergies , and Type 2 Diabetes . But many people are acutely sensitive to digestive distress long before disease symptoms arise because the gut interacts with so many aspects of our physiology, from the nervous system to the endocrine system. While there’s no concrete evidence saying that restoring gut health will prevent these diseases, research suggests that keeping your gut health should be a priority.
But I’m already taking Probiotics
Many people who are aware of the importance of gut health have taken the first step to improve their digestive system by incorporating probiotic supplements and/or foods into their diet. Why does this help?
Gut health is influenced largely by the hundreds of different species of bacteria that make up the microbiome, a complex ecosystem inhabiting the colon. It can be helpful to think of the microbiome as a garden that needs tending, where health-promoting bacteria are like flowers while the harmful bacteria are like weeds. Overgrowth of weeds can destroy the flower garden and overgrowth of harmful bacteria can damage the microbiome. This microbial imbalance can lead to inflammation, leaky gut, and other serious conditions. So while consuming probiotics may seed your microbiome with healthy bacteria, this is like planting fresh flowers in a neglected garden.
Although probiotics and their associated health benefits are well known, fewer people are aware of prebiotics. Prebiotics are the fermentable fibers that are consumed by the healthy bacteria in your microbiome. In other words, prebiotics are food for probiotics. Thinking back to the garden analogy, prebiotics is the water or fertilizer needed to keep those flowers (the healthy bacteria) alive. While probiotics benefit those with a depleted microbiome, virtually everyone can benefit from prebiotic supplements because they feed the healthy bacteria already living in your gut.
All prebiotics resist digestion by the human body and become food for healthy bacteria in the colon. However, the many types of prebiotics can be broadly classified into two groups:
Oligosaccharide Prebiotics are short chains of sugar linked through chemical bonds that cannot be cut by human enzymes. These include naturally occurring prebiotics, such as inulin and fructooligosaccharides (FOS), and synthetic prebiotics like galactooligosaccharides (GOS) and xylooligosaccharides (XOS). Most people consume 6
– 8 g of inulin each day, largely from onions and wholewheat foods. These short chain prebiotics are typically used up quickly by healthy bacteria, which can lead to rapid gas production.
Digestion Resistant Starches are the other main category of prebiotics. While these prebiotics are also chains of sugar, they are massive and their ability to resist digestion relates not to how the sugars are linked but to the overall shape of the molecule. For this reason, cooking can often destroy these prebiotics, making it difficult to obtain enough digestion resistant starch from diet alone. While digestion resistant starches can also produce gas, they do so much more slowly owing to their size and molecular structure.
Diet vs. Supplement
It can be difficult to get enough prebiotic material to support your microbiome from diet alone. Even vegans consuming a diet rich in whole vegetables may find that they cannot get enough prebiotics from their food. Individuals on a gluten-free diet might particularly benefit from a prebiotic supplement because they have eliminated wheat, a good source of prebiotics. Health-conscious consumers already supplementing with probiotics may find that adding a prebiotic helps them maximize the benefits of both supplements.
You’ll know what’s right for you
Everyone’s microbiome is different - it is a reflection of your genetic make-up, your environmental exposure, and your diet. The direct effect that diet has on the microbiome means that you can take control of your gut health, and thereby influence many related physiological systems, through dietary choices and targeted supplements. Prebiotics are incredibly safe and normal parts of our diet, making it easy to experiment with dietary adjustments, probiotics, and prebiotic supplements to find a combination that works best for you and your microbiome.
Dr. Jason Bush, PhD
MSPrebiotics Inc., Carberry, MB, Canada