I’ve had gut issues for as long as I can remember. As a little girl I would wake up in the middle of the night with intense stomach pains. In high school, it felt like 50% of the time I ate a meal I would immediately become bloated and nauseous. In college, I lost 20 pounds over the course of a few weeks simply because every time I ate, I got sick.

All that to say, it has been a rough go for me and my stomach. To say that gut health is a main focus of my life would be an understatement. When I first became intentional and proactive about my gut health, it wasn’t as trendy as it is now. I felt like a child when I would request foods to be made as bland as possible. And simultaneously felt like an old lady as I stood staring at the probiotic section at Target. Nowadays though, it seems that everyone is taking an interest in gut health. First the hype was all about probiotics, but now more people are paying attention to prebiotics, too.

Probiotics and prebiotics are hot topics, especially as more functional beverages and pre-packaged foods arrive on the market. But often the educational step gets overlooked. Few people actually know what probiotics and prebiotics do for the gut.

It’s important to be proactive about the health of your gut, but it’s also important to know what you’re putting in your body (and why you’re putting it there to begin with.) Read on for the answers to your burning questions about probiotics and prebiotics.

image by kate lesueur

The Facts

Your lower gut, or colon, is filled with a bunch of bacteria (we’re talking billions to trillions) that is incredibly necessary for our bodies to thrive. This bacteria works to keep the intestinal tract healthy, support the immune system, and work as an anti-inflammatory. When the good and bad bacteria in the lower gut is in harmony, everything works smoothly in the intestinal environment. But what we eat and drink directly affects our gut and, if our diet is out of whack, it can cause the bacteria to become unbalanced. That’s where probiotics and prebiotics can help.

image by kristen kilpatrick

Probiotics

Probiotics are living organisms that maintain or improve the good bacteria in the gut. When the bacteria in the gut is out of balance (the bad outweighs the good), we tend to feel bloated and/or experience a variety of stomach issues. If the bacteria remain out of balance, the gut will not work smoothly and this can cause long-term intestinal problems. That’s why doctors typically recommend probiotics to most people with digestive issues. Probiotics introduce healthy bacteria to the gut in order to restore it to health.

Until recently, the most popular way to ingest probiotics was in pill form. However, as more people opt to incorporate probiotics into their diet, they’re increasingly choosing beverages as their preferred vehicle. Kombucha, kefir, and apple cider vinegar are especially popular beverages, while fermented foods containing probiotics are also en vogue. These include kimchi, yogurt, miso, natto, and some raw cheeses.

image by kristen kilpatrick

Prebiotics

Prebiotics are fairly new to the scene. Research confirming their importance has only really developed over the past 30 years or so. A simple way to think about prebiotics is as a fertilizer. If good bacteria is the plant, prebiotics would be the fertilizer that feed and nourish that bacteria to help it function at full strength.

Prebiotics are specialized plant fibers that, when ingested, go straight to the colon without being broken down by digestive enzymes. After passing through to the colon, they are fermented by the bacteria in the gut. Once the prebiotics are fermented by the gut bacteria, they sometimes turn into short-chain fatty acids which help nourish the cells that line the gut. This not only help improve digestion, but also can reduce the risk of certain types of cancer and enhance the immune system. Prebiotics can also decrease the likelihood of obesity and to help prevent colon illnesses.

Foods that are rich in prebiotics are common and easy to come by. Some of these include asparagus, yams, bananas, leeks, and Jerusalem artichokes. As prebiotics become more popular, prebiotic beverages have been introduced as a refreshing way to consume prebiotic fiber.

image by catherine sanderson

So, what’s the next frontier in gut health? If I had to guess, I would say it will be synbiotic products that combine pre and probiotics in a single serving format. These products would introduce good bacteria to the gut while also providing prebiotics to help nourish them.

What are your questions when it comes to gut health? Let us know in the comments below.

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