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How prebiotics and probiotics support gut health

From supplements to science, we break down the gut microbiota, one of the most important factors in overall health.

From supplements to science, we break down the gut microbiota, one of the most important factors in overall health.

 

One hundred trillion. 100,000,000,000,000. Look at all those zeroes!

 

That’s about how many bacteria reside in your gut. Collectively, they make up what’s called your gut microbiota. But not every bacteria in there is created equal. Despite the word’s often negative connotation, much of the bacteria in your gut are beneficial. However, there are also pathogenic — a.k.a. “bad” — bacteria in there. And it’s super important that on the balance, there’s more good than bad.

 

While not as large a number as one hundred trillion, there are still an awful lot of search results out there for “gut health.” Over three billion, in fact. That’s because this is a topic of growing interest among researchers as they try to comprehend the enormous impact the gut has on overall health. 

 

So far, we know that the gut microbiome plays a major role in keeping us healthy, so much that some consider it an essential organ of the human body. A healthy gut supports the immune system, digestion, metabolism, mood, and sleep quality, and plays a role in heart health, brain health, and disease prevention. But how do we go about keeping a healthy gut? Can we really do much about those trillions of microorganisms that seem to dictate so much about how we feel each day? The answer lies on your plate. 

 

Probiotics: what are they?

Probiotics are live microorganisms like bacteria and yeast that live in our bodies when consumed. Are probiotics good for you? In short, yes! This is that good bacteria we alluded to earlier – they provide us with plenty of health benefits.

 

But in order for these probiotics to actually help us out, they must be able to make it through the stomach acid and survive in the intestines, where they’ll ultimately reside. Their main function is to support a healthy balance of good-to-bad bacteria in the gut. But they also assist with digestion, support the immune system, and play a role in vitamin production. 

 

Probiotics occur naturally in some foods (more on that in a minute) but you might have also seen probiotic supplements on the shelves at the pharmacy or grocery store. Over the past few years, probiotic supplements have gained popularity — for context, the probiotic industry is expected to become a $94 billion business in five years, almost double its $54 billion valuation in 2020

 

What are the most common types of probiotic bacteria?

 

Though there are many different types probiotics out of bacteria tout there, there are two types of bacteria that are most commonly found in stores. These types of probiotics are:

  • Lactobacillus

  • Bifidobacterium

Probiotics can also come in yeast form, the most common type being Saccharomyces boulardii.

 

The science on probiotics 

Despite us knowing about some of the benefits of probiotics on our health, there is still a ton we have yet to learn. The potential health benefits of additional probiotics on specific conditions are the focus of many research studies right now. Scientists are looking into the effects of probiotics on dermatitis, antibiotic-associated diarrhea, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, elevated cholesterol levels, metabolic disorders, and more. 

 

And although some evidence points to probiotics having positive effects in alleviating these conditions, the science is still preliminary and limited, so future research is warranted. In addition, studies vary in the type of species and amount of bacteria examined, making it challenging to draw conclusions.

 

Should I take a probiotic supplement?

Should I take a probiotic, or other gut health supplements? Based on the explosive growth of the industry alone, if you’re tempted to turn to added probiotics to alleviate a health condition, you are definitely not alone. But the efficacy of this approach is largely still in question.

 

 No probiotic supplements are regulated by the FDA. This is the case for all supplements sold in the United States. This means that their effectiveness has not necessarily been “proven” in research studies. Additionally, there is no regulatory process to check for their formulation, ingredients, dose recommendations, safety, effectiveness or health claims.

 

Nevertheless, as we become more familiar with the overall health benefits of a healthy gut, the more the hype for supplemental probiotics grows. But we can’t always believe the hype! Here’s what research currently suggests: 

 

  • A study comparing probiotic foods and probiotic supplements found probiotic foods to be a preferred delivery vehicle for beneficial bacteria due to providing essential nutrients for maintaining the activity and efficacy of the probiotic bacteria.

  •  Current FDA labeling regulations only require manufacturers of probiotic supplements to list the total weight of the microorganisms, but this weight can consist of both live and dead microorganisms. Therefore, the number of viable (active) microorganisms in the product may not be displayed or known. In order to provide health benefits, probiotics must be consumed alive. They must also be able to make it through digestion and survive in the intestines so that they can thrive and deliver benefits.

  • Although consumption of probiotics seems to have beneficial effects on several health outcomes, the majority of studies are conducted in populations with specific health conditions and diseases. Therefore, much of the research cannot be applied to healthy, disease-free individuals.

 

A quick word from our dietitians:

An important advantage of consuming probiotics from food sources is that foods supply essential nutrients that contribute to health, such as vitamins, minerals and plant compounds that act as antioxidants, protecting the body from oxidative stress. Here at kencko, we believe in the “food-first approach,” meaning that if you can meet your nutritional needs from foods by having a well-planned, balanced diet, that’s preferrable. Many foods, known as functional foods, deliver benefits beyond their nutrients (think: polyphenols, antioxidants, etc.) which help support overall health. 

 

Meanwhile, supplements do not contain these additional benefits and deliver a concentrated amount of a single nutrient, usually in a synthetic form. Consuming too much of one nutrient may affect the body’s healthy balance of nutrients. Foods contain nutrients in amounts which work synergistically to meet body’s demands. Finally, there is simply not enough conclusive evidence on the effectiveness of probiotics in their supplement form. Similarly, there are no dietary guidelines nor a minimum intake requirement for probiotics, indicating that we may not need to supplement probiotics in the first place. 

 

Food sources of probiotics

So if you’re looking to increase the “good” bacteria in your gut, rather than turn to a supplement, perhaps consider upping your intake of foods with probiotics, like:

 

  • They're among the most commonly consumed probiotic foods: fermented dairy products and dairy alternatives, like yogurt and cottage cheese; but check the ingredients list for “active” or “live cultures” — not all fermented foods contain probiotics!

  • Fermented vegetables like sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles, although most commercially available pickles are processed after they are fermented, so they do not contain live cultures

  • Fermented drinks like kefir and kombucha

  • Fermented soybeans in the form of miso and tempeh 

 

(One more benefit of adding probiotics to your diet via food instead of supplements, is that all of these taste great!)

 

Prebiotics: what are they?

Probiotics really do get all the attention, don’t they? We aren’t necessarily helping by fitting this paragraph about prebiotics into the end of this blog post, either. But we don’t think prebiotics will mind. They’re just much less fussy!

 

Basically, prebiotics are food for probiotics. They are a class of complex, non-digestible carbohydrates (fiber, really) that include galacto-oligosaccharides, fructo-oligosaccharides, and the much easier to pronounce inulin (find it in kencko gumdrops!) and pectin. Because prebiotics feed the good bacteria, they contribute to their growth, and therefore help maintain a healthy gut microbiota balance that favors the growth of beneficial bacteria over pathogenic bacteria. 

 

When prebiotics are fermented, they release short-chain fatty acids, a metabolite that has been shown to improve gut health, reduce inflammation, and may be protective against disease

 

These are just a handful of foods you can eat that are full of prebiotics:

 

  • Fruits like bananas, apples, nectarines, peaches, watermelon, pomegranate, grapefruit, persimmon, and even some dried fruits 

  • Vegetables like asparagus, artichokes, garlic, onion, leek, shallots, beetroot, snow peas, fennel, green peas, sweetcorn, and cabbage

  • Legumes like kidney beans, baked beans, chickpeas, lentils, and soybeans

  • Whole grains like oats, barley, rye bread, couscous, wheat bran, and wheat products 

  • Nuts like cashews and pistachios 

 

Whew! That’s a lot of pre- and probiotic info to digest. But if you’re interested in learning even more about your gut, here are five incredible facts about it, plus three tasty gut-friendly recipes for your week’s breakfasts!

 

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