Maintaining a Healthy Gut: Probiotics, Prebiotics and the Importance of Fiber

Hello Lovelies ,  

Look beyond the buzz and you will see a promising association of synbiotics (the combination of prebiotics and probiotics) in the intervention and prevention of certain conditions and diseases. Put simply, if we eat a nutritious diet that is high in quality and varied overall with an abundance of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, we are creating the right environment to promote a healthy gut. In our digestive system, this environment is known as the microbiome, home to many different microorganisms including diverse bacteria. The healthier we are, the healthier our microbiome. The more whole real foods and minimally processed we consume, the better our chances of having a healthy gut.

The right gut microbes support a strong immune system, improve digestion and absorption, as well as lower levels of chronic inflammation associated with several chronic diseases. So feed these microorganisms right and our bodies can benefit.

Probiotics

Our guts are home to trillions of good bacteria which support good health. They are not only associated with immunity, digestive health, and anti-inflammatory effects, but there is growing research on lower BMI, weight loss, improved sleep, and even the anti-aging effects of probiotics. More studies are emerging attributing these live, active microorganisms to the treatment and prevention of metabolic conditions, infectious diseases, and neurological disorders. We acquire our probiotics naturally when we are born, but many life events affect their composition and quantity over the years. Some of these include illness, stress, antibiotic use, and of course diet.

Probiotics are found in cultured dairy products, such as yogurt and kefir; fermented foods like unpasteurized sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, natto, miso, tempeh, aged cheese (ex: Gouda, mozzarella, cheddar, provolone, including my beloved feta) and naturally fermented sour pickles (not in vinegar); and acidophilus milk, cultured non-dairy yogurts, buttermilk, sourdough bread, olives, and even wine. So it doesn’t hurt to consume these foods as often as we can, as there is no down side to eating these nutritious foods.

Probiotic Supplements                    

Aside from food, probiotics come in supplements in capsule, tablet, powder, and liquid forms and are a convenient way to take probiotics, but keep in mind they are not providing the nutrition foods can offer. If you take probiotic supplements, bacterial survival is best when taken within 30 minutes before a meal or simultaneously with a meal or beverage that contains some fat content. There are many different strains of bacteria and doses, so do your homework before choosing the right one for you.

Feed your good bacteria with fiber

Prebiotics, components of fiber, are also beneficial to the microbiota and digestive system. They are not bacteria, but indigestible plant fibers that stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria by feeding probiotics. They are referred to as fermentable ingredients or fermentable dietary fiber. So in order to nurture friendly bacteria, we need fiber-rich foods with prebiotics.

You can increase your total fiber intake by eating foods from plant sources including whole grains, lentils, beans, peas, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds to feed your good bacteria, create a healthy gut environment, and decrease inflammation in the colon. Other benefits may include lowering cholesterol and controlling blood sugar levels, which are no surprise since they are components of fiber.

While there are no current recommendations for prebiotic intake, the recommendations for a high fiber intake are out there. Women should strive for 21 to 25 grams per day and men 30 to 38 grams. When we are not consuming enough fiber, and that’s most Americans, this translates into the bacteria actually eating away at your mucus layer of the gut to get what they need. This leads to the inflammation often tagged as a cause of all sorts of diseases and conditions.

In addition, the foods high in prebiotics have additional beneficial components in the form of phytochemicals. So this is just one more reason why fruits, vegetables, and whole grains such as whole grain breads should be incorporated daily into our diet. Some specific top sources of prebiotics include: apples, asparagus, barley, dandelion greens, garlic, leeks, soybeans, raisins, jicama, onions, bananas, artichokes, Jerusalem artichoke, chicory, oats, rice, potatoes, pasta, legumes, and whole wheat foods.

Bottom line

While we wait for the evidence to build, there is no down side to eating these foods. A plant-based high fiber diet is the best way to enhance your gut microflora. Eat a lot of fiber from diverse natural sources. The positive effects of fiber and whole grains in the diet on gut microflora were recently outlined in a study published in the American Journal of Nutrition out of Tufts University. They support that the gains of eating these foods include an increase in gut microbial diversity along with enhanced immune and inflammatory response.

Some interesting research is being done on maternal probiotic consumption during pregnancy and early infancy to reduce the incidence of eczema among children. More research is underway, but this looks very promising and has started being recommended to new mothers. (Canadian Family Physicians 2011 Dec: 57 (12): 1403-1405) Also, newer studies are emerging with synbiotics introduced early in life intervention for the protection against obesity later in life. (Journal Diabetes, Obesity, and Metabolism) Such interventions may play a huge role in combatting the global obesity epidemic, so stay tuned as more information continues to emerge in the world of pre- and probiotics.

To top it all off, some evidence has emerged that taking probiotics reduced BMI (body mass index) and body weight with the greatest reduction in BMI occurring in overweight adults. The best news is, improving your gut bacteria through diet driven changes can happen in a matter of days, so get to it!

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Pre- and Probiotic Food Sources found readily in your kitchen.