With most things in life there is good and bad and in general we want more of the good. Our gastrointestinal tract feels the same way about our bacteria. Our body has a community of microbes (bacteria, fungi, and viruses) called the microbiome. They live on our skin, in our nose, mouth, genital tract, and gastrointestinal tract. In fact, there are ten times more microbes than human cells in our body and about 400-500 different bacterial species. Having more good than bad bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract is important in supporting our gut health, aiding in digestion and absorption of nutrients, bolstering our immune system, and making vitamins such as K, biotin, and thiamine. Bad bacteria like Helicobacter pylori can lead to ulcers and Methanobrevibacter smithi causes most of our methane (you know, gas) production. Furthermore, research suggests a link between certain bad bacteria and inflammation, autoimmune diseases, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, and other health issues. Of course we all want a healthy gut, but how do we get one? One easy way is to eat probiotic foods and if necessary adding a probiotic supplement to our diet.
Probiotics are the good bacteria that we want and we can find them in various foods. Lactobacilli and bifidobactera are two examples that are found in yogurt. These two probiotics are especially good to have when taking antibiotics. Antibiotics are not specific and kill both the bacteria causing your illness and the good bacteria in your gut. Lactobacilli and bifidobactera replace and maintain the good bacteria as well as offset some of the side effects from the antibiotic, such as diarrhea. Probiotics are also found in fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha. Although there is still much to learn about our gut bacteria, a general rule of thumb is to eat a varied healthy diet with plenty of fiber. Bacteria like to eat and without good options like fiber rich foods our hungry bacteria may start eating the protective lining of our gut. The good news is that even though several factors can lead to an increase in bad bacteria (for example, an unhealthy diet, antibiotics, and illness) we are able to change our gut profile with healthy and consistent dietary choices.
Prebiotics are simply put, food for the probiotics. As I mentioned above, bacteria like to eat so the more healthy food options our probiotics have, the more beneficial bacteria there are, which leads to a healthy gut, better digestion, stronger immune system, etc. As with probiotics, prebiotics are found in many different foods, specifically fiber rich raw foods, such as chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke, jicama, dandelion greens, asparagus, leeks, garlic, onions (raw or cooked), and under ripe bananas. Some of us and I am one of them am, are not thrilled with the idea of raw asparagus on our dinner plates, so lightly steaming vegetables is a good way to enjoy the food and minimize the nutritional benefits lost. Other options are to ferment the vegetables, or add them to salads or smoothies.
To learn more about the microbiome and how diet plays a role, check out this TED-Ed video entitled How the food you eat affects your gut by Shilpa Ravella.
Below is a wonderful infographic by Karen Reed from Positive Health Wellness that describes the difference between probiotics and prebiotics.
Photo by Alexander Mils on Unsplash