A Primer on Prebiotics: What They Can Do for Your Digestive System

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You’ve probably heard about the health benefits of probiotics — whether they are taken as a supplement or included in foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, and tempeh, probiotic bacteria have been shown to support healthy digestion and even ward off disease. But you’re probably not quite as familiar with prebiotics, which are showing up more and more on the ingredient lists of a wide range of foods and nutritional supplements. So what exactly are prebiotics? How do they differ from probiotics? And are they just as beneficial to your health as probiotics? Read on for a basic primer on prebiotics and how they can contribute to your health and wellness.

What Are Prebiotics?

Prebiotics are a specific category of plant fibers. Compared to other plant fibers, prebiotics have shorter carbohydrate chains and lower molecular weights. They are not digestible, but they are not destroyed by the body either. Instead, they serve as an energy source for the “good” bacteria in your gut. As a result, consuming prebiotics can increase the ratio of good bacteria to bad bacteria in your gut. Some of the foods that naturally contain prebiotics include onions, garlic, asparagus, and artichokes.

Prebiotics fall into two categories: fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) and galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS). The prebiotics that fall within these categories differ slightly from each other in chemical structure, but they are all short- or medium-chain carbohydrates that can nourish the good bacteria in your gut. Some specific examples of prebiotics include:

 

  • Inulin, which is a prebiotic fiber that is isolated from the roots of the chicory plant.
  • Partially hydrolyzed guar gum (PHGG), which is a prebiotic fiber that is derived from the seeds of the guar plant and partially hydrolyzed in order to improve its solubility and reduce its viscosity.
  • Lactulose, which is a synthetic prebiotic fiber that is derived from lactose (the sugar found in milk) and was developed in the 1950’s to help treat constipation.
  • Lafinose, which is another synthetic prebiotic fiber that has been shown to support digestive health.

Understanding the Difference Between Prebiotics and Probiotics

When making nutritional choices, it is important to understand the difference between prebiotics and probiotics. At the most basic level, probiotics are the bacteria in your gut. Prebiotics are the fibers that feed them. Therefore, they both support digestive health, but prebiotics do so at an earlier step in the process.

When it comes to nutritional supplements, the differences between prebiotics and probiotics becomes more stark. When you take a probiotic supplement, you are directly adding bacteria to the environment of your gut. You assume that the bacteria in the supplement are “good” bacteria, and they probably are — most companies sell probiotic supplements that contain a wide range of bacterial strains that are known to support digestive health. However, you have to remember that everyone’s gut environment is different, so a standard supplement may or may not be adding the bacteria that you actually need. For example, you might be taking a supplement containing a strain of bacteria that you already have enough of, while at the same time falling short on a different strain that you lack. In contrast, when you take a prebiotic supplement, you can be more sure that the supplement will actually have a measurable effect. Prebiotics feed the health-promoting types of bacteria in your gut, like lactobacilli and bifidobacilli, causing them to proliferate to levels that are optimal for your body.

When evaluating the differences between prebiotic and probiotic supplements, you have to remember that probiotics are actually alive, while prebiotics are just sugars. Therefore, probiotics can be killed by heat and stomach acid, whereas prebiotics can maintain their chemical structure and do their job in your gut regardless of the harsh outside conditions. Although scientists are working on developing better ways to deliver probiotic supplements, prebiotics may be a safer bet because of their stability.

Of course, even though there is a clear distinction between prebiotic and probiotic supplements, you don’t necessarily have to choose between them. Just as you can eat foods that naturally contain prebiotics alongside those that contain probiotics, you can also take a probiotic supplement to add bacteria to your gut and a prebiotic supplement to nourish them.

Health Benefits of Prebiotics

By supporting a healthy bacterial environment in the gut, prebiotics can provide direct benefits for your digestive system, including improving bowel regularity and preventing intestinal infections. Research also indicates that prebiotics can aid in the absorption of calcium and magnesium, which can help strengthen bones and ward off osteoporosis. In addition, like many fiber supplements, they can help with appetite control and weight loss. They may even help reduce triglyceride levels in your blood, making them a great choice for people with cardiovascular problems.

Atlanta Chiropractic and Wellness offers TruFiber, a prebiotic supplement that contains both inulin and PHGG. If you are thinking about trying a prebiotic  supplement, our chiropractors can provide nutritional counseling to help you learn more about prebiotics and decide whether TruFiber is right for you. Contact us today for more information!

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