Prebiotics - The unsung heros of the gut

"Written by Mark Bennett, functional nutritional scientist/therapist and founder of Entire Wellbeing www.entirewellbeing.com

There is a great deal of discussion, debate and on going research over the use of various strains of probiotics and their potential impact on human health and well-being. Probiotics are defined as ‘live microorganisms (bacteria and fungi) that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit to the host’. Clinically, certain probiotics strains can be extremely useful for improving well-being, but the science as to which strain(s) should be used when and how well they survive the digestive process before they end up where we want them, is currently far from clear.

Prebiotics on the other hand are the food for probiotics and consist of no-digestible fibres (from fruits and vegetables). Prebiotics are defined as ‘compounds in food that induce the growth or activity of beneficial microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi (probiotics)’. It may be the case that prebiotics are more effective as a tool than probiotics. If we properly feed the probiotic bacteria in our guts, then they are more likely to thrive and provide us with key benefits.

The science connects the following health benefits with regular prebiotic consumption: Regular stool output – prebiotics increase stool bulk/mass. Increased mineral absorption – there is emerging evidence that certain prebiotics may improve bone density. Triglyceride reduction – fat in the blood, which is formed in the liver by eating excessive calories/refined carbohydrate foods and is probably one of the most important yet often overlooked markers for cardio vascular disease risk. Improved/balanced immune function – after all nearly 80% of the body’s immune system resides in the gut. Improvements in blood sugar management and insulin sensitivity – diabetes is a significant and growing healthcare burden. Weight loss. Improved hormone regulation. Improved mood. Improved sleep and a reduction in the stress response. All in all, this is an impressive list of benefits and just validates the importance of consuming enough fibre from fruits and vegetables – as a general guideline aim for 12 portions per day (4 fruit – 8 vegetable) – often though, the ratio of fruit to vegetables and the type and quantity of fruits and vegetables need to be tailored to the client’s specific biochemistry.

So what are some of the best prebiotic foods? Chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke, garlic, leeks, onions, asparagus, dandelion greens and under ripe bananas. Ideally these foods should be eaten raw to confer their greatest prebiotic effect. However, bear in mind that these foods may well cause significant digestive issues (abdominal cramping/diarrhoea/gas) if you are already presenting with IBS and/or have Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO).