By Rebecca Turner, MS, RD, CSSD, LD
Did you know there is a colony of tiny bacteria living inside you that serves a mighty purpose? The majority of these diminutive warriors are found in the colon, but they also exist in the stomach, the mouth, armpits, and even within the nasal cavity. Every day a battle is being waged inside your gut between good bacteria and harmful bacteria and fungi. The good guys, probiotics, go head-to-head with unsafe microorganisms and send signals to your immune system to help regulate inflammation. Probiotics, also play an important role in forming the building blocks needed to protect the lining of the colon.
The Symbiotic Relationship of Probiotics and Prebiotics
A person in good health has about one hundred to three hundred trillion probiotic bacteria living within them. Taking care of these busy bugs is important to our wellbeing. It’s important not to confuse – two similar terms with different functions, probiotics and prebiotics. Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria, and prebiotics are the food that nourishes these bacteria. We need to understand the difference between pro- and prebiotics so that we consume balanced amounts of both by eating wholefoods for optimal digestive health.
The gut bacteria, also referred to as the gut flora or gut microbiota, help daily with a variety of biological tasks. The food you choose to eat plays a significant role in the delicate balance of good versus bad bacteria. The typical high-sugar and high-fat American diet has a negative effect on the gut bacteria, allowing harmful species to flourish. The old saying, “what you feed grows and what you starve dies,” holds true in the gut. When you fail to eat the right foods to properly feed the good bacteria, they can’t help you stay healthy by winning the war against the bad bacteria.
In Search of Probiotics and Prebiotics
Before you buy expensive pro- and prebiotic supplements, invest in the foods that naturally contain them. One of the best sources of probiotics is yogurt. Always check the label for “live or active cultures” such as lactobacillus or bifidobacteria to be sure the brand is rich in probiotics. Another source is foods that have been fermented, a process that produces probiotics. Some examples of foods that have been fermented are: kefirs, sauerkraut, miso soup, soft cheese, sour pickles and sourdough breads.
When you eat foods containing probiotics you need to adequately nourish them with prebiotics. Prebiotics are actually a type of fiber found in vegetables, fruits, and legumes. Humans are unable to digest these fibers so they are passed on to the gut and our good bacteria feast on them. Foods that are high in prebiotic fibers include legumes, beans and peas, oats, bananas, berries, asparagus, garlic and leeks. In addition, the probiotics fed by the fiber found in these foods will help you get more nutrition out of your wholefoods by helping you absorb iron, calcium, and phytonutrients better.
Boost your efforts and eat a combination of pro- and prebiotic foods together. Build a bacteria friendly parfait with yogurt and berries. Slice a banana over a warm bowl of oatmeal. Add beans to salads, soups, and wraps. Flavor dishes with minced garlic, or roast garlic and asparagus together for a delicious side dish. Step outside your comfort zone and give kefir, or fermented milk a try. Thicker than fluid milk, but thinner than yogurt, kefir is enjoyable over berries and granola, or try it in a smoothie.
Wholefoods and Better Health
Eating a wholefoods-based diet will provide a host of health benefits besides the advantage of pro- and prebiotics. However, if you are concerned you are not eating enough probiotics, a daily supplement can be helpful. There are over 400 strains of probiotics and about that many supplements on the market. Look for products with Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium as they are two of the most well studied strains. Products labeled “mega probiotics” aren’t necessarily superior. Recommendations vary, but products with at least 20 billion live organisms per dose have been shown to be effective. It doesn’t matter if the supplement is a powder, pill, liquid shot or kept chilled. The quality of the product has more to do with the specific microbes it provides than with the form in which it is taken.
Bottom line, good nutrition plays an important role in keeping you and your gut healthy. Give your gut the upper hand and eat balanced amounts of pro- and prebiotics. For the best supplement recommendation, talk to your primary health care provider.
Rebecca Turner is a registered dietitian, certified specialist in sports dietetics and author of “Mind Over Fork.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram @RebeccaTurnerNutrition.