ABC’s of increasing the bacteria you want growing in your gut

Prebiotics and probiotics are bacteria that keep your intestinal tract healthy and support your immune system. The importance of their function is becoming clear, yet many of us still don’t really understand what they really do. How do prebiotics and probiotics really work, what benefits do they offer, and how can we get the right amount?

Prebiotics basics

Prebiotics are carbohydrates that create specific changes in the microflora of your gut that are good for your health. But, while all prebiotics are carbohydrates, not all carbohydrates are prebiotics. Most prebiotics are not digested in the small intestine. Instead, they travel to your colon where they are then fermented by the gut microflora.

In other words, the prebiotics feed the important bacteria that live in your gut.

Some foods high in prebiotics are psyllium, bananas, whole-grain wheat, garlic, onions, leeks, artichokes and soybeans.

In the journal Nutrients, researchers conclude that prebiotics are important for prevention of diseases including cardiovascular and colon illnesses, obesity and poor immune function. 

Probiotics basics

Probiotics are those good bacteria that the prebiotics are feeding. We have more bacteria inside of our bodies – up to10 times more – than we do human cells. Most of those bacteria are located in our lower gut, in our colon. When the balance of bad bacteria and good bacteria goes awry, we can have problems from annoying bloating to disease.

Foods high in probiotics are kefir, yogurt, kombucha, miso, natto, raw cheese and apple cider vinegar. You should include soil-based probiotics (SBO) such as fruits and vegetables from a local, organic farmer’s market in your diet. Make sure they are gently washed with water, not harshly scrubbed. There are also supplements and drinks available that are chock-full of probiotics.

Many doctors now recommend taking probiotic supplements before and during a round of antibiotics. This wards off the growth of the bad bacteria after the antibiotic kills off too many good bacteria. Do your research and be sure to buy from companies with solid reputations for good products.

Health benefits of prebiotics and probiotics

Luckily for us, research has exploded with information about the health effects of these two types of bacteria. One of the most important aspects of this research has shown that bacteria can strengthen our immune system. In fact, the effect on our immunity is so robust that prebiotics and probiotics can increase the efficacy of the influenza vaccine. It was found that this effect was most pronounced in adult populations.

Along those same lines, many find that taking probiotics before and during the onset of an illness can reduce the severity of symptoms and the amount of time they are ill. This is most likely because of the immunity boost.

In addition, prebiotics and probiotics are anti-inflammatory, calming the tissues and nervous system of the body. Lowering inflammation reduces the negative impact of an illness. The anti-inflammatory effect also drives the notion that probiotics and prebiotics can reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Probiotics also have made a huge impact on the mental health industry. Psychiatrists, psychologists and nutritionists are finding that the health of the gut directly impacts mental health. Some psychiatrists are encouraging dietary changes and prescribing probiotics for patients with depression, anxiety and other disorders. In particular, a direct link has been made between anxiety and OCD and probiotics. While the mechanisms aren’t fully understood, the benefits are clear. People are relieved of some of their suffering simply through making different dietary choices.

Probiotics and prebiotics have also been found to be important in the treatment of intestinal diseases such as Chron’s disease, ulcerative colitis and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Though the reasoning behind the symptom relief remains somewhat vague, it’s clear that the anti-inflammatory and immune-promoting nature of these important ingredients work to heal the intestinal track.

The effects of prebiotics and probiotics together

strawberry smoothie with banana probiotic and prebiotic

When probiotics and prebiotics are taken together, it’s called synbiotics. To ensure your ultimate health, you want to consume both probiotics and prebiotics daily. If you have a health condition you’d like to address with prebiotics and probiotics, consult a nutritionist or specialist to begin.

Drink a strawberry-banana kefir smoothie – getting those prebiotics and probiotics in one serving – and make your gut happy. It’s an easy way to increase your immune system and enhance your mental health.

As we continue to learn more about the effects of healthy bacteria, we can adjust our way of eating to ensure a healthy mind-body connection. Listen to this conversation between founder and owner of Rewire Me, Rose Caiola, and Dr Joe Loizzo –psychiatrist and Buddhist scholar, who teaches mind body health at Cornell Medical College.

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