Prebiotics, Probiotics: Does Your Gut Really Need Them?

One commercial swears their product is loaded with probiotics essential for good gut health, and another contends their prebiotic product is necessary to promote optimum gut health. So which is a must have to maintain a healthy gut? The answer is that they are both important. Prebiotics along with probiotics provide an essential one-two punch for a healthy gut.

What is the Importance of a Healthy Gut?
Keeping your gut happy is important in your overall health. Shore Medical Center Outpatient Registered Dietitian, Mackenzie McCune, said, “Gut bacteria help to increase nutrient absorption, ward off pathogens and recent studies show that the bacteria in our intestines can directly affect our mood and our brain chemistry.”  Susan O’Donnell, Shore Medical Center Clinical Nutrition Manager, added, “More evidence is emerging that shows when humans have strong healthy microbiota in the gut there are definite health benefits related to digestion. Strong microbiota can also decrease the need for antibiotics and alleviate constipation.” 

How Prebiotics and Probiotics Function
Prebiotics are “good bacteria promoters,” according to McCune. “They are naturally occurring, non-digestible food components that are linked to promoting the growth of helpful bacteria in our gut. They can help to improve gastrointestinal health. These active cultures help change or repopulate intestinal bacteria to balance gut flora.” 

McCune suggested there are a number of ways to maintain a healthy gut through diet. Consuming adequate fiber, fluid, fruits and vegetables can help regulate the GI tract, and the addition of some fermented foods can provide added value. She added, “In fact, 70-80 percent of our immune system is contained within our digestive tract.” Gut bacteria can help by aiding to harvest inaccessible nutrients or energy from the diet, assist with the synthesis of vitamins, support drug metabolism and increased bio-availability, assist in gut cell renewal, and act as a barrier against gut pathogens. 

The Difference between Prebiotics and Probiotics
Metaphorically speaking, O’Donnell said, “I like to explain it as prebiotics are like the stage hands getting the stage ready for the actors to perform. Probiotics are the actors who can have a more effective performance with the stage hands’ input.”

McCune added, “Ultimately, prebiotics promote good bacteria and probiotics are the good bacteria. They work together.”

Is One More Important?
According to O’Donnell, both prebiotics and probiotics assist in good gut bacteria. “A mixture containing a blend of probiotics and prebiotics is called a symbiotic. Together they work synergistically; the prebiotics feed the probiotics and probiotics maintain a healthy gut.” 

How Food Affects the Gut
The food we eat along with other factors can cause “bad” bacteria overpopulation. This includes antibiotics, illness, stress, poor dietary habits such as high fat high fructose foods, like deli meats, as well as poor lifestyle habits, such as smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. McCune offers the following tips for maintaining a healthy digestive tract: 

  • Top your cereal with probiotic yogurt instead of milk to increase probiotic bacteria in the diet. 
  • Drink plenty of water and exercise regularly to increase bowel movements. 
  • Enjoy a cup of peppermint tea after a meal to improve digestion.
  • Snack on bananas, which are loaded with prebiotics.
  • Chew food thoroughly and eat slowly. 

To include more prebiotics in our diet, McCune recommends eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains such as garlic, onions, leeks, artichokes, asparagus, wheat bran, bananas and chicory root. 

Probiotic foods that are a good choice to include in your diet include fermented dairy products such as yogurt, kefir products and aged cheeses that contain live cultures, including bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. Other fermented non-dairy foods include kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh and cultured non-dairy yogurts. 

Before Taking any Supplement Consider…
McCune cautioned that because fermented foods may interfere with some medications, you should check with a physician or a registered dietitian if you are taking multiple medications before adding them into your diet. Likewise, when considering whether to take a supplement she advised to consider your individual health needs, especially if you have a weakened immune system or any gastro intestinal issues.

Meal Planning
Both O’Donnell and McCune agree that a healthy meal plan includes being mindful of contributing to a healthy gut. They suggest people include a variety of fruits, vegetables, dairy (if tolerable) and whole grains in their diet which contain prebiotics and probiotics. O’Donnell suggests a daily serving of yogurt along with 25-30 grams of fiber daily that includes a variety of fruits and vegetables. 

According to McCune, when considering your personal diet, there are a few things to keep in mind regarding prebiotics and probiotics. Everyone’s gut microbiome is unique and there are not established guidelines for intake. Overall, a balanced diet that includes a variety of foods is recommended for the improvement and maintenance of gut health. 

For help with your individual nutrition plan, schedule an appointment with a member of the Shore Medical Center Outpatient Nutrition Counseling Team by calling 609-653-4600.