Gut health, gut health, gut health…these days it’s all we seem to hear! Well, Amen, sister! I am on the same page. Gut health is the underlying key to our optimal health and wellness. A poor gut microbiome is linked to so many acute and chronic illnesses as well as poor physiological functioning of the body.
You’ve probably heard of the terms ‘probiotics’ and ‘prebiotics’ being thrown around, but, perhaps don’t quite know the difference between the two or that they weren’t the same thing?! Read on and I’ll break it down for you.
To start with, probiotics and prebiotics are the building blocks of good gut health.
Probiotics are our ‘good’ or ‘friendly’ bacteria (aka live bacteria), which are essential to a well functioning gastrointestinal tract and therefore, our optimal health and vitality. They are inherently ‘live’ bacteria and are found in fermented food and drink such as sauerkraut, kefir, tempeh. kimchi. miso and kombucha. Probiotics are often prescribed to combat the gastrointestinal side effects of antibiotics as the antibiotics target all bacteria, whether good or bad. You probably know that there are countless different strains of bacteria in our world. Many of these different strains have been studied in relation to specific illnesses or symptoms. One example is lactobacillus, which is perhaps one of the most familiar bacterias. To confuse you a little more, lactobacillus itself is merely the genus or the umbrella, there are actually many different varieties of this type of bacteria.
Prebiotics act like a fertiliser for our probiotics and they also play a role in hormonal balance too. They traditionally embody the non digestible fibrous components of our food and they enable the growth and survival of our good bacteria. To be a little more scientific, a prebiotic is a selectively fermented ingredient that allows specific changes, both in the composition and/or activity in the gastrointestinal microflora that confers benefits in the hosts overall wellbeing.
Contrary to popular belief, the word ‘fibre’ is not as simple as it seems. When we talk ‘fibre’ we are referring to a bunch of different types of fibre rather than one single compound. You have oligosaccharides (which are traditionally our prebiotic-rich foods), you have polysaccharides, fructo-oligosaccharies and inulin… I won’t go into so much detail, but you can read more about these compounds here.
Examples of prebiotic foods include onion, raw garlic, leek, beans, cashews, chickpeas, lentils, peaches, asparagus, greenish bananas, oats, dark leafy greens amongst others. These foods pass through the upper part of our gastrointestinal tract and remain undigested, due to the inability of the human body to break them down. Once they reach the colon, they are fermented by the microflora of the gut. *A little side note, if you are susceptible to digestive issues, be wary when adding in the aforementioned foods rich in prebiotics as they can be high in FODMAPs and can contribute to the problem. The key is implementing little by little.
Prebiotics and probiotics work together in harmony to employ specific physiological and functional changes in our gastrointestinal system. Together, they play an important role in maintaining the balance and diversity of bacteria within the gut.
Prebiotics are useful in reducing the prevalence and duration of infectious and antibiotic-associated diarrhoea as well as reducing the inflammatory response and various symptoms associated with inflammatory bowel disease. They have also been shown to exert protective effects in the prevention of colon cancer as well as enhancing the uptake and bioavailability of specific minerals, such as, calcium, magnesium and iron. Prebiotics have also been shown to lower some of the risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease as well as assisting in the prevention of obesity and weight loss due to their satiety promoting properties.
Probiotics have shown to be useful in those suffering from allergies and intolerances, skin-related issues (such as atopic dermatitis as well as allergic contact dermatitis), cardiovascular-related issues (such as high blood pressure and cholesterol) as well as gut-related issues (such as constipation, diarrhoea, bacterial overgrowth, IBS, IBD and more).
To conclude, many things affect gut function, such as poor lifestyle habits, excess stress as well as an inadequate dietary intake. In order to optimise the potential of our gut, we must mindfully nourish our bodies with good whole foods that promote the production of healthy gut microflora as well as the maintenance of a health ecosystem.