While we often think of bacteria as a bad thing, your gut actually needs a balance of healthy bacteria to thrive. And a healthy gut leads to a healthy you -- reducing your risk for heart disease, hypertension, colon cancer, digestive issues, and more.
One popular way to maintain gut health is to eat probiotics. But that’s just one piece of the gut health puzzle. If you're not eating prebiotics, probiotics aren't going to help you. Here's why.
Did you know your gut has more than a thousand species of microorganisms and trillions of bacteria? All this bacteria in the gut is referred to as your gut microbiome. A healthy gut microbiome is an important piece of your overall health.
“Good bacteria” reduces inflammation in the gut; a balanced biome reduces your risk for serious illness, including heart disease, colon cancer, IBS and Crohn’s Disease, even depression (your gut is often referred to as you “second brain” after all).
So how can you stay on top of your gut health? Probiotics and prebiotics are both important.
Probiotics are definitely trending in the United States -- from Kombucha on tap at natural food stores to an explosion of supplements available on the market. And it’s true; eating probiotic rich foods can help boost your gut health. But that’s just one piece of the puzzle.
First, what are probiotics, exactly?
Probiotics are foods that contain live microorganisms (caused by fermentation) to promote the growth of bacteria, or normal microflora, in your gut.
While greek yogurt is a popular probiotic-rich food, you can get your probiotics without the inflammatory effects of dairy.
While probiotics are absolutely beneficial for gut health, if you’re skimping on prebiotics, your gut health will suffer.
Prebiotics are plant-based foods we eat that fuel the growth of the healthy bacteria in the gut.
Prebiotics contain fiber we can’t fully digest so it ferments in the gut. This fiber goes into our digestive system to become food for the good bacteria. When we feed our “good bacteria” the fiber in prebiotics, the bacteria creates a short chain fatty acid called butyrate.
Butyrate is crucial to keeping your gut in balance.
Not all bacteria is good and our immune system has to distinguish between the “good” (referred to as microbiota symbiosis) and the “bad” bacteria (microbiota dysbiosis) so it can properly get rid of the bad, while keeping the good.
Without butyrate, our bodies can’t tell the difference between “good” and “bad” bacteria, which means the immune system will attack even the good stuff.
This happens when people don’t have enough fiber in their diet. Our body confuses a low fiber diet with dysbiosis. So if we aren’t eating enough fiber (most Americans are not), the good bacteria from probiotics doesn’t matter because there is no butyrate to tell our body that our gut is balanced - so our immune system goes into attack mode and destroys the good bacteria.
The good news is, it’s easy to get prebiotics from plant-based foods.
By Ali Brown
Ali is a nutrition and lifestyle writer and editor, with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.