A healthy gut plays a vital role in our overall health. Research has linked a healthy gut to lower rates of obesity, reduced risk of diabetes, improved mood and a strong immune system. The more diverse our gut bacteria are, the better for our bodies!
In view of the growing popularity of “gut health”, the terms prebiotics and probiotics are commonly thrown around, but what exactly are they and what is the difference between them?
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are live bacteria that, when consumed in adequate amounts, support a healthy microbiota (the variety of microorganisms in our gut).
Although we commonly associate bacteria with ‘germs’, these microorganisms positively assist our bodies in various ways. Probiotics exist in different strains (or subtypes); each having different effects on our body and thus possessing different health benefits. Our gut microflora is diverse, with large numbers of these beneficial microorganisms living both in and on our bodies. The most common types of probiotic bacteria are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria.
Consuming a variety of probiotic rich foods may exert health benefits by:
- Maintaining microbial diversity
- Supporting a healthy digestive tract and improving digestion
- Enhancing immune and skin health
- Reducing risk of diseases, including chronic diseases like diabetes and obesity
- Aiding healthy weight loss
- Reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression
Probiotic Rich Foods
Examples of foods that are rich in probiotics include:
What Are Prebiotics?
Prebiotics are a type of fibre that act as food for probiotics.
These fibres are not digested in the small intestine (where protein, carbs, fats are digested and absorbed), rather they travel to the colon (large intestine), where they are fermented. This fermentation process nourishes the good bacteria to keep your gut bugs healthy and abundant.
Prebiotic Rich Foods
Foods rich in prebiotics include:
- Unripe / green bananas
- Legumes (e.g. lentils, peas)
Keeping Your Gut Healthy
There are many factors involved in keeping the probiotics in your gut flourishing and your overall gut healthy. Below are some of the major factors that can affect the healthy bacteria in your gut and what you can do to improve your overall gut health:
- Eat a Variety of Plant Foods – What we eat plays one of the most impactful roles on our gut health because diet can change our microbiota composition. Research has linked omnivorous, that is a plant-based diet, to greater microbial diversification. This is because plant based diets are rich in prebiotics – the food for our healthy gut bacteria. Different probiotics feed off different prebiotics, so enjoy eating a variety and abundance of plant based foods is key! Delicious fibre-rich, plant-based and fermented foods can fuel your gut with essential microbes to keep your gut and your body happy and healthy!
- Manage Stress and Get Enough Sleep – Psychological stress has been shown to impact microbial colonisation. Furthermore, increasing research has linked poor sleep patterns and disruption to the normal circadian rhythm, to microbial dysbiosis (imbalance). Gut microbiota control the function and responsiveness of our intestinal immune cells, so when this is thrown out of balance, it causes increased susceptibility to infection, hence why you may fall sick easier when stressed and/or sleep deprived! So make sure you take time out to relax and refresh your body and get enough sleep.
- Reduce Your Need For Antibiotics – Antibiotics reduce bacterial diversity and significantly decrease our beneficial bacteria. Whilst effective in treating targeted infection, this profound effect to our gut microbiota can impact our health in the long term. Furthermore, increasing evidence has shown the possibility of medication used to treat type II diabetes, and anti-cancer drugs, can alter the composition of the gut microbiota, and reduce microbial diversity. Hence looking after your immune system to reduce the need for antibiotic use is important for a gut health. Click here to learn what to eat to keep your immune system healthy.
- Avoid Environmental Pollutants – Pesticides, heavy metals and organic pollutants have also been shown to induce dysbiosis, and interfere with the metabolic activity of our gut microbes. Avoid or limit your exposure to these to keep your gut healthy.
If the above factors are not looked after, our gut microbiota can be thrown out of balance (dysbiosis). This places us at risk of developing illnesses such as:
- Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD)
- Atherosclerosis (plaque build-up in arteries)
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Type II Diabetes
What About Prebiotic and Probiotic Supplements?
Food is one of the best ways in which we can assist in increasing our gut microbe diversity. For those healthy individuals who consume a diet high in fibre, abundant in plant foods, and fermented foods, supplementation may not be necessary. If you are considering supplementation, speak to a qualified health professional, particularly one that specialises in probiotics and gut health, to align adequate supplementations to suit your conditions of concern.
This article was co-written by student Nutritionist Tahlia Claringbold from the Nourish Naturally team.