What Are Prebiotics?
Prebiotics are substances that help to feed good bacteria in the gut. They encourage the growth of micro bacteria that help to streamline the digestive system and prevent problems from stomach upset to bloating and gas. Today, prebiotic supplements include things like fructooligosaccharides and galactooligosaccharides as well as antioxidants including polyphenols.
It’s important to make a distinction between prebiotics and probiotics — they are definitely not the same. Prebiotics are a type of dietary fiber that the body uses to improve digestion. You can think of prebiotics as fertilizer for the human body.
Probiotics, on the other hand, consist of live bacteria cultures that must coexist with other bacteria to improve digestive health. Probiotics can be found in foods such as yogurt, Jerusalem artichoke, and sauerkraut.
A healthy digestive system can benefit from both probiotic and prebiotic foods. Here, we’ll focus on prebiotic supplements that offer benefits for the digestive tract.
Health Benefits of Prebiotics
Prebiotics are most commonly used to help improve and restore healthy digestion. These supplements work to increase the number of healthy gut bacteria while preventing the growth of bad bacteria that can make you sick. Research published in 2017 also found that prebiotics can help improve symptoms of lactose intolerance by increasing the presence of bacteria that ferments lactose (1).
A clinical trial published in Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics examined the effects of prebiotics in irritable bowel syndrome. The study consisted of 44 patients who received prebiotics or a placebo daily for 12 weeks. Researchers found that participants who took prebiotic supplements showed decreases in flatulence and an improvement in stool consistency (2).
According to researchers, gut health is vital to immune health. In fact, one study argued that gut health accounts for 70 percent of the immune system (3). Thus, it’s important to keep the gut happy and healthy in order to protect overall health. An unhealthy gut can lead to leaky gut, which causes toxins to leach into other body systems such as the bloodstream.
A scientific review published in Current Opinion in Gastroenterology examined the effects of prebiotics on the immune system. Analysts examined recent studies and trials published within the last two years. Researchers found that prebiotics encouraged the production of short-chain fatty acids and T regulatory cells — two important components of immune function. The prebiotic fiber also improved the efficacy of killer T cells, which fight off infections (4).
Benefits of prebiotics may also have an indirect impact on brain health. Research published in Psychopharmacology investigated the effects of prebiotics on stress levels. The study consisted of 45 healthy volunteers who were given one of two different prebiotics or a placebo every day for a 3-week period. Researchers found that participants who took galactooligosaccharides had significantly lower stress and cortisol levels (5).
Prebiotics may be beneficial for heart health thanks to effects on blood sugar levels. A study published in the International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition examined the effects of prebiotics on women with type 2 diabetes. Researchers found that prebiotics worked to decrease inflammation and lower blood sugar levels (6).
The Best Prebiotic Foods
There is a wide range of foods that contain healthy prebiotics, making it easy to add these healthy components to your daily diet. Here are some foods you can eat depending on the types of prebiotics you’re looking for.
- Dark chocolate
- Chicory root
- Blue Agave
- Oat milk
- Soy milk
The Best Prebiotic Supplements
Finding the best prebiotic supplement can be a challenge. That’s because the FDA doesn’t regulate supplements and many manufacturers call supplements prebiotics simply if they contain fiber. Soluble fiber is very different from prebiotic fiber so make sure to read the label and find out what’s in your supplement. Three of the most popular and high-quality prebiotic supplements include Bimuno B-GOS, Sunfiber, and the Nutraflora FOS from NOW.
Research shows that prebiotics are strain-specific so finding the best supplement will depend on your specific needs. Talk to a qualified healthcare professional to find the best supplements for your digestive system. They may recommend fiber gummies with prebiotic properties or a full-on prebiotic powder.
Side Effects of Prebiotics
Prebiotics are not associated with a large number of side effects. The most commonly experienced side effect is bloating and discomfort. To avoid digestive discomfort when taking prebiotics, start slow and consult a physician to determine the proper dosage. As your body becomes used to the prebiotics, you can increase your consumption if desired. By choosing the best prebiotic supplement, you’ll also experience fewer side effects associated with additives and fillers.
Some people may experience allergic reactions to certain prebiotic foods. Avoid high-fiber food sources that you may be allergic to. Luckily there are dozens of foods that contain healthy prebiotic compounds so you can get your healthy fiber from foods that you are not sensitive to.
Prebiotics are essentially fiber supplements that work to improve beneficial bacteria in the stomach and gastrointestinal tract — including the large intestine and small intestine. Prebiotic effects include an increase in healthy gut bacteria and improvement when it comes to immune health, heart disease, and brain health. To find the best prebiotic supplement, you’ll need to do some research and read labels.
You can find prebiotics in a wide range of foods as well as dietary supplements. By increasing the effectiveness of healthy bacteria in the gut, you can boost immunity and decrease the chance of harmful bacteria wreaking havoc on your system. Combine prebiotic supplements with probiotic supplements and other supplements for the best gut benefits.