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April 15, 2021 16 min read

To keep us fit and healthy, we need the right mix of good and bad bacteria in our gut. We often overlook the single most critical aspect of our overall health. Wondering what are prebiotics? They help our guts, which are home to 90% of our immune system. However, an imbalance of them jeopardizes our overall wellbeing, hindering both our digestive and immune systems.

What are prebiotics? Prebiotics can be extremely beneficial when it comes to gut health, among other health benefits like improved immune system and better mental health. These bacteria benefit us in a surprising number of ways, including help reducing inflammation, improving our cognitive health, and improving our digestive health.

Are you interested in prebiotics and what they could do for you and your body? Read on to find out exactly what prebiotics are, how to use them, and commonly asked questions.

What is a Prebiotic?

What is a prebiotic?

Prebiotics are food-based compounds that promote the growth and activity of beneficial microorganisms including bacteria and fungi. Prebiotics have the ability to change the composition of species in the gut microbiome, which is the most common example. Prebiotics aid probiotics, which are tiny living microorganisms, including bacteria and yeast.

Dietetic prebiotics are non-digestible fiber compounds that move through the upper gastrointestinal tract and serve as a substrate for beneficial bacteria (probiotics) that colonize the large bowel, stimulating their growth or operation. 

To put it simply, prebiotics are dietary fibers that help to feed the good bacteria in your gut. This aids the development of nutrients for your colon cells through gut bacteria, resulting in a healthier digestive system.

Prebiotics, the Friendly Fibers for Your Gut

Prebiotics, the friendly fibers for your gut

The ability of both dietary fibers and prebiotics to move down the upper part of your digestive tract and avoid digestion by the usual digestive processes that break down and remove nutrients from food is what makes them so special. Prebiotic fiber, on the other hand, differs from normal fiber in that it acts as a selective food source for the bacteria in your gut, providing a health advantage not found in non-prebiotic fiber. Essentially, prebiotics are complex carbohydrates that nurture your gut bacteria, while dietary fibers consist of non-starch polysaccharides and oligosaccharides alike that don't selective feed your gut. Prebiotics can also be present in other types, such as polyphenols, although these are less common in our diets.

Prebiotic Benefits

Prebiotics come with an array of health benefits - even outside of the gut! 

Is said to help improve immune system

The immune system is stimulated by prebiotics, which is one of their beneficial effects. Multiple elements of the innate and adaptive mucosal immune system are known to be influenced by gut microorganisms. Increased populations of beneficial microbes or probiotics, especially lactic acid bacteria and bifidobacteria, may have direct or indirect effects. Prebiotics increase the function of gut-associated lymphoid tissues (GALT), which improves overall health and could help reduce risk of sickness.

Digestive and gastrointestinal health

Few people have the ideal balance of good and bad bacteria in their gut. A variety of factors, including unhealthy, refined foods and sugar, stress, and prescription medications, can lead to high levels of bad bacteria. Gas, bloating, diarrhea, muscle pain, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, exhaustion, and other health problems can all be caused by this.

Although prebiotics are not needed for survival, they can aid in the maintenance of a healthy balance of good and bad bacteria by providing food for those vital probiotics. Prebiotics and probiotics work together to promote improvements in the structure and activity of the gastrointestinal system, which helps to maintain gut health, which is linked to many other bodily functions.

Mental health

Mental health

While studies are ongoing, they have suggested that prebiotics can improve your mental health. The probiotics in your gut ferment prebiotics, and the by-products of this fermentation (short chain fatty acids) will induce the release of serotonin from your brain, implying that a gut-healthy diet can have a direct impact on your mood and overall mental health. Please make sure you consult your doctor first.

Overall health

 Overall health

Since the body is linked in many different ways, it’s suggested that prebiotics may help in other areas of your health too. For example:

  1. Prebiotics may reduce the need for antibiotics
  2. They also dramatically reduce school absences from colds, and the incidence of ventilator-associated pneumonia
  3. Gestational diabetes can occur in pregnant women, and a healthy gut diet can prevent this happening.
  4. Vaginal infections, such as yeast infections can also be reduced providing the bacteria balance in the gut is ideal.
  5. Eczema may also improve when using prebiotics. Skin conditions like eczema can occur due to changes in the body such as your diet and digestion, and also your immune system too.

Side effects of prebiotics

Since prebiotics aren’t anessential part of the human diet, the body can experience side effects from taking prebiotics. However, these are usually temporary, and can be controlled by theamount you’re consuming and how often. For example, if you’re now introducing prebiotics into your diet in large quantities, you may experience bloating, diarrhea and gas side effects to begin with. Introducing prebiotics into your diet gradually can help alleviate this.

Those that suffer with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) may find that prebiotics aren’t for them, as they can make symptoms worse. If you’re unsure, speak to your doctor about how consuming more prebiotics may affect your body.

It’s also worth noting that you shouldn’t take prebiotics if you have small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) or FODMAPs intolerance, as this will upset the balance in your gut.

Improve the Absorption of Several Minerals

Prebiotics help with the absorption of essential minerals including calcium and magnesium, which helps with bone mineralization. Prebiotics contain SCFA, which helps to acidify the gut lumen, increasing the solubility of minerals in the gut and increasing the expression of calcium-binding proteins in the large intestine.

What foods are considered prebiotics?

What foods are considered prebiotics?

To be classified as a prebiotic, a dietary material must possess the following physiological properties:

  1. Gastric acid and enzymatic degradation by pancreatic and intestinal enzymes are both resistant to degradation. 
  2. Beneficial bacteria in the gut, such as lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, should selectively ferment it, encouraging their proliferation and/or metabolic activity. 
  3. Prebiotics are lactulose and most soluble fibers that meet these requirements.

Prebiotics can be found in many foods, and some are higher in prebiotic content than others. If you’re looking at introducing prebiotics into your diet, finding foods that naturally produce them in higher quantities may benefit you. A few great examples of foods that are considered as prebiotics are:

  1. Chicory root
    Chicory root is a fantastic source of inulin, a prebiotic fiber. Inulin encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria in the intestine, which helps digestion and relieves constipation. Chicory roots have been shown to lower cholesterol levels, protect the liver from damage, and inhibit lipid peroxidation. It also controls appetite, carbohydrate and lipid metabolism, and has an antihyperglycemic impact.

  2. Onions
    Onions are a high-fructan, immune-boosting food. They contain inulin and FOS, which help to improve the digestive flora and break down fat. Chromium is also found in raw onions. This increases insulin production, vitamin C levels, and the antioxidant quercetin, which fights free radicals. Onions are thought to have anticancer and antibiotic properties, as well as the potential to help with heart disease.

  3. Dandelion greens
    Dandelion greens help to maintain gut flora by including prebiotic constituents including inulin. Dandelion has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which have a variety of biological effects. They've also been shown to have lipid-lowering and anticancer properties in some studies.

  4. Oatmeal
    Whole oats are high in beta-glucan fibers and resistant starch, as well as prebiotics. Oats promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut, which aids digestion. They also help to lower LDL cholesterol and keep blood sugar levels in check. Oats promote satiety, which aids in weight management.

  5. Wheat bran
    The prebiotic effect is elicited by arabinoxylan-oligosaccharides (AXOS), which are found in wheat bran. In healthy humans, AXOS fiber regulates intestinal fermentation and gastrointestinal properties. Wheat bran intake has been linked to a rise in fecal bifidobacteria levels, which aid in digestion and immune system strengthening.

  6. Asparagus
    Asparagus is high in inulin, which encourages the growth of good bacteria in the gut. Asparagus has a high radical scavenging ability, suggesting that it may be used to reduce free radicals in the body and thus prevent cancer and aging.

  7. Jerusalem artichoke
    Jerusalem artichoke, also known as sunroot or sunchoke, is high in fiber and has been linked to increased Bifidobacterium populations in the colon. It may also be useful in the prevention of type 2 diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. The inulin content of these foods can explain their beneficial effects on lipid profiles and glucose tolerance.

  8. Bananas
    Bananas are high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and prebiotics, among other nutrients. Bananas that are slightly under ripe have the highest concentration of resistant starch and prebiotics, which help to promote healthy gut bacteria and reduce bloating.

  9. Barley
    Barley is a cereal grain that contains a lot of β-glucans, which help to increase the amount of good bacteria in our gut. β-glucans have also been shown to have immune-modulating properties and to help with obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cholesterol levels.

  10. Apples
    Apples have a prebiotic effect since they contain pectin, which aids in the production of fermentative processes in the large intestine. Apple peels are a good source of antioxidants since they contain a lot of phenolic compounds. 

These are generally the most common foods that are easily found with prebiotics as you can pick them up at the local supermarket. However, some foods that are harder to obtain can contain a higher natural prebiotic level.

Are there any “superfoods” that contain prebiotics?

Are there any “superfoods” that contain prebiotics?

Probiotic bacteria can be found in a variety of plant-based foods, especially sour and fermented foods. The following are some of the best probiotic foods:

  • Sauerkraut is a fermented cabbage that is high in probiotics, which are produced during the fermentation phase. Freshly fermented is the best because it retains the most nutrients.
  • Kimchi is a popular Korean dish made from fermented cabbage and other vegetables.
  • Tempeh is a fermented soybean product with a high protein and probiotic content.
  • A staple of Japanese cuisine, miso paste is used as a soup base and flavoring in a variety of dishes. Although it's rich in probiotics, it's also high in sodium, so use it sparingly.
  • Natto is a unique food made from fermented soybeans that is high in probiotics and has a unique texture and flavor.
  • Kefir is a probiotic food made from cultured cow's milk. You may substitute coconut or water-based versions to avoid the harmful health effects of dairy.

What is the difference between probiotic and prebiotic?

Prebiotics and probiotics play different roles in the battle for improved gut health. But, to help you understand what each word means, here's a handy guide:

Probiotics are live bacteria strains that increase the population of beneficial bacteria in your digestive system.

Prebiotics are a form of plant fiber that acts as a food source for beneficial bacteria. This encourages the growth of the healthy bacteria that already exist.

Probiotic foods and supplements essentially add soldiers to your army, while prebiotics provide the necessary reinforcement. Prebiotics provide food for probiotics, but probiotics need prebiotics to work properly. The study of the connection between the two is still ongoing, and scientists are unable to say whether taking prebiotics will help probiotic growth.

Should I Take Prebiotics?

Although probiotics can be found in cultured and fermented foods, there's a risk you won't be able to get enough via diet alone. Supplements also have a higher amount of probiotics (measured in CFUs, or colony forming units) than food sources of probiotics, which have the added advantage of nutrients along with the healthy bacteria. Diet, travel, stress, and changes in routine can all disturb your natural balance of healthy bacteria, so taking a daily probiotic supplement to help improve your digestive balance is usually recommended.

However, if you’re unsure abouthow much natural prebiotics you’re getting from your diet, it’s a good idea to keep a detailed food diary and speak with a nutritionist about whether you would benefit from taking a supplement form of prebiotics. Some people find taking prebiotics great for bloating and abdominal discomfort caused by the digestive system, whereas others find prebioticscause those symptoms. The way your body reacts to prebiotics will also depend on the probiotics found in your gut naturally. It may take some time to find the right balance but overall, prebiotics can be very beneficial to your gut health, among many other health benefits as discussed earlier.

Can You Take Prebiotics and Probiotics Together?

Probiotics are bacteria that naturally live in your body and aid in the digestion of food. Probiotics that are identical or very similar to those produced by your body can be taken to help with digestion. A new class of supplements known as prebiotics has been promoted as a complement to a probiotic diet in recent years.

As stated above, prebiotics are carbohydrates that your body is unable to digest. They exist to provide food for the probiotic bacteria you're ingesting. Microbiome therapy is the use of prebiotics and probiotics together. Prebiotics aren't needed for probiotics to function, but they can help your probiotics be more successful.

Prebiotics and probiotics may help with diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, allergic disorders, and even the common cold. Obesity care options include prebiotics and probiotics. Because of the differences in bacteria strains, each probiotic is different. Not all probiotics would benefit you in the same way, and not everyone needs to take one. If you have a lactose intolerance, look for a probiotic that is dairy-free. If you have a yeast (Candida) overgrowth, you should be cautious and use a probiotic that does not contain Candida.

A prebiotic and probiotic mixture seems to help people who are already taking antibiotics.  The symbiotic effect helps to counteract the harmful bacteria that are destroyed by antibiotics.

Is it Better to Take Prebiotics or Probiotics?

Is it better to take prebiotics or probiotics?

Probiotics work by adding new “good” bacteria into your body, while prebiotics nourish the bacteria that are already present. Probiotic supplements, as well as probiotic-enhanced foods like kombucha and yogurt, have additional bacteria in whole forms—or strains. Probiotics are beneficial to your health, but they can be difficult to ingest and sometimes denature in the digestive system until their health benefits are realized. Not to mention that not all dietary and supplemental probiotics contain the strains that are ideal for your microflora.

Prebiotics, on the other hand, have a longer shelf life and are more sustainable than probiotics, ensuring that the digestive health is maintained without the possibility of spoilage or denaturation.Probiotics and prebiotics are better taken together.

Although prebiotics and probiotics may sound similar, they are very different supplements with different functions in the digestive system (or gut). Probiotics are live microorganisms that are produced naturally in foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, miso soup, kimchi, and other fermented foods.

Doctors also recommend probiotics as supplements to antibiotic-treated patients in an effort to repopulate the colon with beneficial bacteria after the antibiotics have eliminated both beneficial and undesirable bacteria. Some people believe that taking probiotics will help them cope with the medication's gastrointestinal side effects and reduce bacterial development, which can lead to yeast infections.

Prebiotics are non-digestible food additives that promote the growth and/or activity of a specific community of beneficial bacteria already present in the gut. This means that whether you take prebiotics or probiotics will entirely depend on your current state of health. For example, those with bowel disorders may not benefit from prebiotics as they can make symptoms worse. It’s always best to speak with a medical professional such as your GP or nutritionist for advice if you’re thinking about introducing either prebiotics or probiotics into your diet.

How Long Do Prebiotics Take to Work?

Prebiotics, unlike caffeine or other supplementary compounds, are not immediately effective. The digestive system is a slow-moving system, and changes can take a long time to propagate across the system. Since cells and bacteria are reluctant to modify and replace, prebiotic supplements must be taken consistently and patiently. The simple truth is that your gut health improves over time.

However, it's possible to see initial effects as early as 3-4 days after starting supplementation, with increased wellness and health/happiness experiences. This will entirely depend on your diet, stress levels, activity levels, and current overall health. Those that are fit and healthy in general may notice faster results due to a healthier digestive system. That said, a digestive system in dire need of intervention may notice fast results and alleviation of discomforting symptoms.

Even then, the effects begin to accumulate over time and cause more long-term changes after this stage. These involve the above-mentioned improvements in metabolic efficiency and immune/mental health.

The more immediate effects are usually smaller and more closely related to your experience. They do, however, continue to improve, and long-term benefits such as bone health and cancer risk accumulate over time and react best to consistency, meaning if you start taking prebiotics, you should commit to feel the full effects rather than taking them temporarily.

What is an Example of a Prebiotic?

Prebiotics come in a variety of forms. The bulk of them are oligosaccharide carbohydrates, which are a subset of carbohydrate classes (OSCs). Although there is some evidence that prebiotics are more than just carbohydrates. Here are some examples of prebiotics:

  1. Fructans
    Fructans are natural fructose polymers that are used in functional foods for their prebiotic and health-promoting properties. Fructans and their fermentation products (short chain fatty acids and hydrogen gas) cause a reduction in cellular status and immune system regulation, helping to prevent disease. Furthermore, evidence is mounting that fructans may help patients with inflammatory symptoms.

  2. Galacto-Oligosaccharides
    Plant sugars are connected in chains to form galacto-oligosaccharides. Dairy products, beans, and some root vegetables contain them naturally. The most popular uses for galacto-oligosaccharides are to treat stomach problems including constipation and to avoid allergies in infants. They're also used to treat colon and rectal cancer, upper respiratory infections, and other ailments.

  3. Non-Carbohydrate Oligosaccharides
    While carbohydrates are more likely to fulfill the prebiotics classification criterion, some compounds, such as cocoa-derived flavanols, are not classified as carbohydrates but are suggested to be classified as prebiotics. Flavanols have been shown to activate lactic acid bacteria.

  4. Resistant starch
    The total volume of starch and starch degradation products that avoid digestion in the small intestine is known as resistant starch. Starches that evade digestion enter the colon, where they are processed by the gut microbiota, resulting in a number of items, like short chain fatty acids, which have a variety of physiological benefits.

The potential for resistant starch to be used as a prebiotic, which is a non-digestible food component that benefits the host by stimulating the growth or activity of one or a small number of beneficial bacteria in the colon, is one of the latest areas of research. To be labeled as a prebiotic, a resistant starch must meet three criteria: resistance to the upper gastrointestinal system, intestinal microbiota fermentation, and selective stimulation of the growth and/or activity of beneficial bacteria.

Is spinach a prebiotic?

Sulfoquinovose (SQ) is a rare long-chain sugar molecule found in spinach. SQ isn't digested in the upper GI because of its length, so it goes down to the lower intestine to feed the healthy bacteria and promote their growth in the gut.

Is yogurt a prebiotic?

To put it simply, no. Earlier in the article we talked about how different foods are prebiotics and probiotics, and yogurts contain healthy bacteria that help improve your gut health. Yogurts are aprobiotic, not a prebiotic.

Is Cabbage a prebiotic?

Cabbage is a perfect prebiotic product, which means the fiber in it feeds the healthy bacteria (probiotic) in our large intestine. So, if you're feeding your gut healthy bacteria-rich foods like yogurt and kefir, make sure you're also feeding the bacteria some good cabbage. Unpasteurized sauerkraut is a perfect example of a food that is both a prebiotic (from the cabbage) and a probiotic (from the bacteria) (because it is fermented, and has good bacteria). If you love cabbage, enjoy it often for a healthy dose of prebiotics!

Is Sweet Potato a prebiotic?

Yes, they are! Sweet potatoes are one of the most nutritious sources of resistant starch for your gut bacteria. They, like most naturally orange foods, are high in carotenoids (the pigments that give them their color) and Vitamin A, which help to maintain healthy vision. The resistant starch found in sweet potatoes make them a great source of prebiotic and can be cooked in a wide variety of delicious methods.

When should I take prebiotics?

You may be wondering if the timing of consuming prebiotics plays a role in how well your body reacts to them. The question of "when to take prebiotics" can be broken down into two parts:

  • How do I know if I should take a prebiotic supplement and when?
  • What are the instructions for taking a prebiotic supplement?

  • There are a variety of symptoms associated with such micronutrient deficiencies, such as vitamin B12 deficiency. Bad cognition, coordination issues, numbness and tingling in the hands and limbs, memory loss, exhaustion, and fatigue are all signs of B12 deficiency.

    Given the complexity of gut health and gut microflora, determining whether you have a "prebiotic deficiency" can be difficult. Nonetheless, much like vitamins and minerals, everybody needs prebiotic fibers to keep their gut bacteria safe and happy.

    Symptoms of a bacterial imbalance in the gut include:

    1. Pain and discomfort in the abdomen
    2. Bloating and indigestion on a regular basis
    3. Excess gas 
    4. Diarrhea
    5. Poor cognition and brain fog
    6. Sugar cravings have increased

    To answer the first question, taking a prebiotic supplement is a good idea if you're having any signs of poor gut bacterial health. Even if you feel great in your stomach, taking a prebiotic supplement is a good idea to make sure everything is running smoothly.

    The second question is simple: prebiotics must be taken on a daily basis. Missing a day or two of prebiotics won’t necessarily do you any harm, but you may notice certain symptoms returning such as discomfort and bloating. If you find that prebiotics help your digestive system, as well as the other health benefits, then it’s recommended to consume prebiotics every day. To control the amount, a supplement may be a preferred method because you can control how much you’re consuming. Bear in mind some foods naturally contain prebiotics, and therefore some days you may be consuming more than others.

    Try Wonder Drink Prebiotic Kombucha

    Prebiotic supplements can be an excellent addition to a well-balanced diet. Prebiotics, when used correctly and in conjunction with a healthy diet and exercise program, are an excellent way to keep the digestive system and organs in top shape.

    Taking care of your internal organs may not be glamorous, but it offers the best possible foundation for any fitness goal and ensures overall health and wellbeing. These advantages include anything from improved digestive function to indirect metabolic, hormonal, mental, and immune benefits.

    These factors add up to a significant increase in the quality of life and endurance, resulting in healthier living. A perfect way to get the most out of a prebiotic supplement (or natural source) is to use a high-quality prebiotic compound from the best possible source. 

    When you begin to feel your digestion is improving, your energy levels soaring, more regular bowel movements and also a better mood, it means your prebiotics are working! Be sure to continue taking prebiotics, whether it be naturally or via a supplement to continue these incredible changes in your body.

    You can find prebiotics in many natural sources as we’ve mentioned, but there are also companies likeWonder Drink that create drinks that are packed with prebiotics. Wonder Drink Prebiotic Kombucha is the first and only kombucha with an effective dose of Xylo-oligosaccharides (XOS Fiber), a plant-based, organic prebiotic fiber. XOS Fiber—or "Xylo," as they like to call it — only nourishes the good bacteria, known as probiotics, in your gut.

    Take care of your gut with natural or supplemented prebiotics and it will look after you – it's the basis for good health and success!

    Wonder Drink does not claim to carry any of the health benefits listed in the article.

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