Bacteria might sound like a bad thing, but it’s key to digestion: Your gut needs healthy bacteria (probiotics ) to move food through your system successfully. And to do that you also need prebiotic-rich foods, which contain the fibers to feed the probiotics . Read more about prebiotics vs. probiotics and the benefits of prebiotics for gut health , and where you can find these powerful probiotic feeders.
Probiotics, which most people are more familiar with, are the microorganisms that live inside and nourish the gut. You can find them in food or supplement form, but they are most commonly found in gut-healthy fermented foods, such as kombucha, yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut, explains Jaclyn Tolentino , DO, a physician at Parsley Health in Los Angeles.
Prebiotics are the key nutrients for the growth of good bacteria in the colon and GI tract, such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus, two important microorganisms that can help tame inflammation in the gut and keep digestion regular, says Dr. Tolentino. They’re found mostly in fiber -filled food sources, but they can also be found in supplement form. “Because prebiotics are not broken down by stomach acid and digestive enzymes, they’re able to ferment in the colon, which stimulates the growth of these beneficial microbes,” says Dr. Tolentino. Simply put, prebiotics feed probiotics, so both are essential for gut health.
It’s important to note that there are multiple kinds of fiber that contain prebiotics.Two of those types are important for producing short-chain fatty acids like butyrate, for example. “Butyrate is an important fatty acid that provides energy to the cells that line the GI tract and helps maintain the integrity of the mucosal lining of the gut,” Dr. Tolentino says. The mucosal lining is what keeps the gut microbiome in place within the GI tract and when it’s healthy, may help prevent inflammatory bowel diseases, according to recent research .
The variety of microorganisms in the gut bacteria, also referred to as gut flora, are not just important for digestion to work properly; they’re crucial for a healthy metabolism, immune system (a good portion of the immune system is located within the gut), and hormone levels too, explains Dr. Tolentino. That’s why it’s so crucial to achieve a regular balance of beneficial microorganisms, and prebiotics are up for the task since they’re the ones feeding the probiotics.
Everyone can benefit from prebiotics in their diet, but they’re especially impactful if you’re experiencing chronic constipation, bloating , gas , abdominal pain, diarrhea, or other digestive issues. Those symptoms are a sign that your gut microbiome might be struggling with an imbalance of good bacteria and you should be on alert regarding your gut microbiome health, Dr. Tolentino says.
First of all, each meal should include a source of protein , healthy fat, and fiber (that’s where the prebiotics come in), Dr. Tolentino says. If you eat in this balanced way, and also make sure you include enough probiotic-rich fermented foods in your diet, your gut microbiome should stay healthy. Eating more prebiotic foods will simply help probiotics work better within your gut to keep it regulated and healthy, Dr. Tolentino adds. Here are some important fiber-rich prebiotic foods you should incorporate into your diet more frequently.
Eating a clean, whole foods-focused diet will naturally include many of these fibrous prebiotic foods, so you may not need an additional prebiotic supplement, says Dr. Tolentino. However, she mentions, if you’re recovering from an infection or illness where you took antibiotics (and especially if you experienced diarrhea or any other uncomfortable GI side effects from the antibiotics), you may need the extra help from a prebiotic supplement to get your probiotic count back up. The prebiotic supplements can also be beneficial if you’re struggling with a digestive disorder, including IBS, inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease, in balancing the amount of gut bacteria that might have been depleted.
Along with Parsley’s probiotic supplement , your physician or health coach might recommend a prebiotic supplement powder that can be mixed with water. But if you’re not necessarily struggling with any digestive disroders or haven’t taken antibiotics recently, the supplements might not be necessary. “If you’re just trying to optimize digestion or regulate bowel movements, prebiotic foods and a moderate dose of a probiotic supplement are generally a safe way to experiment with improving your overall digestion,” Dr. Tolentino says. While most patients do prove to be deficient in fiber in their diets rather than having too much fiber, it’s not a good idea to overload on prebiotics either. “Too much too soon can cause gas, bloating, and abdominal pain,” she adds. It’s smartest to incorporate these prebiotic-rich foods rather slowly into your diet, especially if your digestive system isn’t used to all of that fiber.
Especially if you’re experiencing unpleasant GI symptoms that might be related to a digestive disorder such as IBD, IBS, colitis, or Crohn’s, don’t go experimenting with balancing your probiotic and prebiotic levels on your own, as that may land you in a more uncomfortable situation, gut-wise. Consult your physician or health coach first about ramping up the prebiotics in your diet and to discuss if a supplement is necessary.
Mara is a freelance journalist whose print and digital work has appeared in Shape, Brit+Co, Marie Claire, Prevention, and other wellness outlets.
Most recently, she was a member of the founding team of Bumble Mag, a branded content project for Bumble at Hearst Corporation. She enjoys covering everything from women's health topics and politics to travel. She has a degree in Communications as well as Italian Studies from Fordham University.