Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Pro-Biotics and Pre-Biotics



The winter holiday season is upon us. With that comes family gatherings and feasts, along with the indigestion that inevitably follows. Whether eating too much or eating foods we know aren’t healthy for us, this season can take a toll on almost anyone.

Digestive health is an issue that affects countless people worldwide. There are many drugs, supplements, and other products marketed at people as being able to improve digestion. One of the easiest ways to prevent digestive problems is by making sure you have a good balance of bacteria in your digestive system. A healthy digestive tract is estimated to have over 100 trillion microorganisms. These microorganisms (including many species of bacteria) break down food and convert it to nutrients we need, but when they’re out of balance, all kinds of health issues can arise.

An easy way to help your body through these digestively troubling times is to take a simple supplement called a “Pro-biotic”. In addition, there are “Pre-biotic” supplements and foods. So what are “Pro-biotics” and “Pre-biotics”, and what do they do?


What are Pro-biotics?

A pro-biotic is a supplement that you can take to add more good bacteria to your digestive system. They come in capsules which contain (usually) billions of bacteria which are packaged in a way to make it past your stomach acid and into your intestines, where they “colonize” and make their home. Once there, they help break down food which feeds the bacteria and also provides nutrients to you. In return, you give them a nice warm, dark place which is perfect for them to live in. Everyone wins!

Many digestive problems arise when these bacteria are missing. They can be lost when you take a course of antibiotics or if your diet doesn’t contain foods they can use (more on this later). If you get a case of “food poisoning” related to bacteria (e. coli, etc.), the balance of bacteria in your gut can also be affected. If this happens, pro-biotics can be used to try to get this balance back into a healthy state.

What are Pre-biotics?

Pre-biotics are basically food for the beneficial (pro-biotic) bacteria in your gut. The two main types of pre-biotic ingredients are inulin and oligofructose, both types of non-digestible fiber. We previously discussed both in our post on sugar alternatives.

Pre-biotic ingredients are not digestible by humans, but beneficial bacteria are able to feed on them. In the feeding process, pro-biotic bacteria convert pre-biotic ingredients into nutrients and other very helpful compounds which we can use. Studies have shown that pre-biotic ingredients (in combination with beneficial bacteria in the gut) can help to significantly increase absorption of minerals and other nutrients.

As good bacteria feed on pre-biotic ingredients, they quickly multiply. While you might think that an increasing number of bacteria in your body is bad, this actually has a very strong protective effect. As beneficial bacteria increase in number, they prevent potentially harmful bacteria or other micro-organisms from getting out of control or causing illness. This is called “out-competing”, as the good bacteria basically starve out the bad ones. This is constantly the case in a healthy digestive system, so pre-biotics are very important.

So not only do pre-biotics help beneficial bacteria to survive and thrive, but it also increases nutrient absorption.

Pro-biotics and Pre-biotics work together.

Pro-biotics are used to get colonies of good bacteria back into your intestines, and pre-biotics help them stay there. It’s not always enough just to get beneficial bacteria into your body. Without pre-biotics to feed them, good bacteria have a very hard time surviving in your gut, let alone competing with the other bacteria there. It takes a coordinated combination of pre- and pro-biotics to maintain a healthy gut.

Just as a bad diet can lead to issues like dysbiosis (an imbalance of gut bacteria), so too can a good diet lead to better gut health. Eating a diet rich in pre-biotic ingredients will help to support the colonies of beneficial bacteria in your body. This, in turn, leads to better overall health, as you are (with help from good bacteria) better able to absorb nutrients from your food and have a greatly decreased risk of harmful bacteria making a home inside your body.

What makes for a good Pro-Biotic

With so many different pro-biotic products available, it can be very confusing to figure out which is best. There are a few key things to look for when shopping for a good probiotic.

A good pro-biotic formula:

  • Has at least three strains of beneficial bacteria. These are most often of the lactobacillus and bifidobacter varieties.
  • Contains pre-biotic ingredients - These help the helpful pro-biotic bacteria successfully establish themselves in your gut.
  • The pro-biotic must guarantee a minimum number of live bacteria before the expiration date (usually in the billions). Without this guarantee, there is no way to be sure that you’re getting the full benefit of the pro-biotic.

There are many pro-biotic products available, but only a few meet all of these criteria. In our next post, we will look at good sources of pre-biotic nutrients in diet and some of our top picks for pro-biotics.

Wishing everyone a Happy Thanksgiving!



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Researched and written by Dr. Rebecca Malamed, M.D. with assistance from Mr. Malcolm Potter.

2 comments:

  1. Dr. I love your website but you need to include more updated info on pre biotics. They are not always indicated especially when one has Small intestine bacterial overgrowth. prebiotics can really feed SIBO and are contraindicated with active SIBO infection. Ths is really common knowledge now in the SIBO/Digestive health community

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