What You Need to Know About Prebiotics and Probiotics

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There is a lot of talk out there about natural ways to take care of yourself. Today, we’e going to dive into prebiotics and probiotics. Well, maybe not dive. But we’ll get a taste.

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The world is teeming with bacteria. Most of the time, we focus on avoiding them, washing them off, or killing them. Bacteria are a leading cause of illness. 

But not all bacteria are harmful. You naturally have good bacteria in your body all the time, helping your system work efficiently. These bacteria are known as probiotics.

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What are probiotics? 

Probiotics are helper bacteria. These bacteria fight off the bad bacteria that enter your body, giving your system a healthy balance. 

Probiotics primarily live throughout your digestive tract. From your mouth to your – ahem – end of your digestive tract, these healthy bacteria live independently inside your system. You can also find them in your lungs, urinary tract, vagina, and on your skin.

The probiotics in your gut help your body fight off harmful strains of bacteria. The good bacteria multiply and coat the gut, blocking the harmful bacteria from attaching to the intestinal walls. 

Probiotics have been used to treat numerous conditions. Success varies, and every person has their own unique microbiome in their gut, so make sure you discuss your supplement choices with a trusted medical professional.

Probiotics have been used to treat:

  • Inflammation, such as with arthritis
  • Diarrhea caused by a viral infection or as a side effect of prescription antibiotics.
  • Depression.
  • Periodontal disease
  • Constipation
  • Infant colic
  • Eczema

Probiotics are not drugs, so they do not go through the same requirements and approval process as prescription medications. What that means is there is less independent testing available to prove or disprove the claims made about these supplements. Get the opinion of a medical professional you trust before trying to treat any condition on your own.

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What Products Have Probiotics In Them?

Probiotics occur naturally in fermented food, but some types of processing may kill them. Check the label for keywords like “active and live cultures.”

Natural sources of probiotics include:

  • Yogurt
  • Some cheeses (aged cheddar, gouda, mozzarella, and cottage cheese)
  • Kefir  
  • Sauerkraut (unpasteurized) 
  • Tempeh 
  • Kimchi
  • Miso
  • Kombucha 
  • Pickles (as long as they aren’t made with vinegar)
  • Sourdough bread

If you’re not into fermented foods, you can also get probiotics into your system with supplements. Probiotics are available without a doctor’s prescription and can be found in pill, gummy, and liquid forms. 

Probiotic (or prebiotic) rich foods including pulses, nuts, fruit and milk products, good for immunity and the gut

So, what are prebiotics? 

Prebiotics are part of the food you eat. They consist of fibers that your body can’t digest. 

Your body doesn’t digest these fibers, but the healthy bacteria that are living in your gut will. Think of this as sending a tiny meal down your system to your pet bacteria. It travels through your gut in its little lunchbox, unopened. When it gets to your bacteria, they open the package and eat it. Your intestine is just the lunchroom.

Prebiotics make the probiotics healthier. Then the probiotics make you healthier. 

Prebiotics are also credited with helping you increase the absorption of calcium. Calcium is a mineral your body uses to strengthen and maintain bones. Your body also needs it for muscle and nerve functions. 

Prebiotics slow the absorption of carbohydrates. If you’ve ever indulged in that choco-nutty-creamy-frosting overload, you have likely experienced a rapid increase in blood sugar. Delicious, yes. But it leaves you with a residual dip in your blood sugar level that can leave you feeling tired, irritable, and craving more sugar.

If you pair that sweet treat with a portion of food containing prebiotics, the blood sugar spike (and the dip that follows it) will level off to some extent. Chocolate-covered banana, anyone?

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Prebiotics occur naturally in many foods. Some of the best options include:

  • Chicory root 
  • Jerusalem artichoke. Also called a sunchoke, this is not the round, green choke. It actually looks like a root. Okay, it actually is a root. The tasty flesh of this root veggie tastes a bit like the round, green globe choke.
  • Dandelion greens
  • Leeks
  • Onions
  • Asparagus
  • Chocolates that are high in cocoa solids
  • Bananas. Eat them when they’re still a bit green to maximize the effect. 
  • Spinach
  • Lentils
  • Chickpeas
  • Oats. The less processed, the better.
  • Blueberries
  • Chia seeds
  • Flax seeds

Portrait of happy little girl is holding a basket with fresh biologic just harvested vegetables and smiling in camera on a background of a countryside farm.

Beans, Beans, the musical fruit…

Prebiotic fiber does great things for your digestive system, but it can have some smelly side effects. This varies from person to person, and can even change within a person over time. 

As probiotics digest the prebiotics (remember the little lunch boxes they opened in your gut), they produce gas. Their gas enters your intestine and becomes your gas. 

If you’re trying a new food to add more prebiotics to your diet, start slowly. Choose one food that appeals to you and try a small portion. Take note of how it affects you over the next day or so. 

If your new food choice results in excessive flatulence, you can try a smaller portion. If the smaller portion doesn’t leave you stinky, stick with it for a couple of weeks, try increasing your portion size.

As your healthy gut bacteria eat more of the prebiotics, they will reproduce. As more probiotics populate your intestine, they’ll munch down that prebiotic more efficiently and produce less gas. 

If you find you can’t get used to a particular food, there are lots of other choices to try. Or, you might prefer to take a supplement. Here are some healthy snack, lunch, and dinner ideas for your family.

Remember, just like their hosts (us), the microbes living in us have their own likes and dislikes. Take care of yourself and your internal neighbors by taking in a healthy diet. Harmony on the inside means happiness on the outside.

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