What are Prebiotics and Probiotics?

With all the buzz surrounding fermented foods recently, most people probably know that there are “good” bacteria out in the world that can benefit our health. But I’ve also had plenty of AnneTheRD nutrition clients say “I know yogurt is nutritious because it has good bacteria, but what does that even mean?! What exactly are prebiotics and probiotics??” I hear you, and I thought it would be helpful today to break it down so you can navigate gut health with ease. Here’s everything you need to know about prebiotics and probiotics!

What are Probiotics?

Probiotics are living bacteria that are similar to the bacteria in your gut. They’re often called “good” or “beneficial” bacteria because they supplement the bacteria in your gut that works to keep your digestive tract healthy. Since probiotics are living bacteria, they need energy to survive and thrive in your body – and that’s where prebiotics come into play.

What are Prebiotics?

Prebiotics are a type of fiber that bacteria can ferment to use for energy. Essentially, prebiotics are food for probiotics. Just like all other dietary fiber, our bodies can’t digest prebiotics, so they stay intact throughout most of the digestive tract. Once prebiotic fibers reach the large intestine, where much of our gut bacteria is housed, bacteria ferments the prebiotics to fuel all its beneficial activities.

Why are Prebiotics and Probiotics Important?

Your gut microbiota, or the community of bacteria living in your gut, plays an important role in your health. Having a “healthy” gut microbiota basically means your gut is an optimal place for lots of different types of beneficial bacteria to live. Since prebiotics provide food for beneficial gut bacteria, eating prebiotic fiber helps make your gut a great home for beneficial bacteria.

Your gut is home to about 100 trillion bacteria, and not all of them are beneficial. The overall goal with eating to improve gut health is to help the “good” bacteria outweigh the less helpful bacteria. The best way to increase beneficial bacteria? Eat the beneficial bacteria itself (probiotics!) and supply that beneficial bacteria with the food it needs (prebiotics!).

A thriving microbiota is crucial for a healthy immune system. Bacteria in the gut helps control your immune system’s response to intruders by signaling for the release of helper-T cells and cytokines. Probiotic bacteria can also create a physical barrier in the gut to protect against unfriendly intruder bacteria.

Eating probiotic foods can also offset imbalances caused by taking antibiotics. When you have a bacterial infection, antibiotics are often prescribed to clear out the harmful bacteria – but they end up also taking a toll on beneficial bacteria in the process. That can lead to digestive distress and diarrhea, but early research has shown that consuming probiotics may help prevent diarrhea associated with antibiotic use.

The gut microbiome is currently a hot topic for research, so new studies are coming out frequently that suggest additional benefits of eating probiotics and having a healthy gut. Studies have found probiotics to be beneficial for sleep health, mood, anxiety, and insulin sensitivity.

Sources of Prebiotics and Probiotics

While all types of fiber have plenty of health benefits, not all are prebiotic fiber. Inulin and ogliosaccharides are the most common types of prebiotic fiber, and they’re found in plenty of foods, including:

  • Soybeans & other beans (I always add beans to my grain bowls for easy, filling lunches)
  • Lentils (try my Sweet Potato Lentil Chili!)
  • Oats (I’ve been using oats in my Oatmeal Banana Coconut Cookies for snacks lately!)
  • Wheat
  • Bananas (bananas are the key to my Perfect Microwave Oatmeal method!)
  • Apples
  • Garlic (load up on garlic in my Lemon Garlic String Beans – the perfect easy side!)
  • Onions
  • Leeks
  • Artichokes (they’re awesome in my Saucy Tomato & Artichoke Chicken)
  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Cabbage

As for getting in probiotics, fermented foods are your best bet. Fermented foods cultivate bacteria through the fermentation process, so as long as those bacteria are live and active when you consume them, you’ll reap all their benefits. Thankfully, fermented foods are all the rage right now, so it’s pretty easy to find probiotic options on grocery store shelves. Keep an eye out for:

  • Yogurt (which is awesome in mix & match smoothies and my Fruit Salad with Yogurt Honey Lime Dressing)
  • Kombucha
  • Kimchi
  • Sauerkraut (make sure to get the kind that’s refrigerated – heat treating sauerkraut to make it shelf-stable kills all the probiotic goodness!)
  • Kefir
  • Tempeh
  • Miso

Do you try to incorporate prebiotics and probiotics into your meals? What are your favorite foods for gut health?

Also, let me know if you have any other nutrition hot topics you’d like me to discuss on the blog – I’m open to ideas! Here are some of my previous nutrition hot topic posts to check out in the meantime:

  • Should Everyone Go Gluten Free?
  • Why I Don’t Recommend Whole30 (controversial, but I stand by what I said)
  • 7 Common Nutrition Myths (that you shouldn’t be fooled by!)
  • How to Get Rid of Sugar Cravings
  • The Sneaky Thing That Might Be Causing Your Stomach Pain
  • What Oils To Use When (e.g. high heat cooking vs. baking vs. salad dressing)
  • Trans-Fat: What It Is & How and Why To Avoid It
  • How to Interpret Blood Test Results
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