Prebiotics and Probiotics—A Primer

I talk about probiotics a lot. I even have a PBS show on the topic—The Road to Perfect Health. I call your gut bacteria the Gut Protection System, or GPS. The word probiotics means, “for life.” Probiotics are defined as beneficial bacteria (sometimes yeast) that benefit the person taking them in some way. Many people relate probiotics to yogurt, because some yogurts contain probiotics. (Many don’t—if the probiotics aren’t added back in after pasteurization, there won’t be any probiotics in the yogurt due to high heat required during pasteurization. Plus, check the sugar levels in yogurt—yikes!)

Awareness of probiotics is increasing. In 2007, about 58 percent of people surveyed were aware probiotics might be good for the digestive system. In 2011 that percentage increased to 81 percent. People are starting to get it.

What about prebiotics? Prebiotics are non-digestible food ingredients that promote the growth of beneficial microorganisms (like probiotics) in the gut. They are essentially food for the beneficial gut bacteria—the fuel for the Gut Protection System, if you will. Prebiotics are often soluble fibers, like FOS (fructo-oligosaccharides) and acacia fiber.

If you think about it, soluble fibers escape digestion, arriving in the colon (large intestine) largely intact. Then, beneficial bacteria use the soluble fibers like food. A fermentation process occurs, yielding beneficial compounds like the short-chain fatty acid, butyrate, which fuels intestinal lining cells, and lactic acid, which lowers the colon pH to a healthy level.

Prebiotics and probiotics go hand-in-hand. When these two are found together, they are often called a “synbiotic,” highlighting their beneficial relationship. Studies show that the prebiotic FOS is particularly helpful in increasing levels of beneficial gut bacteria, while inhibiting an increase in harmful bacteria.

If you’re taking a prebiotic, be sure to take it with a probiotic to get the added benefit and to ensure you’re giving the “food” to the right kind of bacteria—the good kind.

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