Most of us have heard of probiotics, even if only from TV adverts promoting bacteria-laden sugary drinks. But, did you know that probiotics are just one of three bowel musketeers?
Probiotics, the beneficial bacteria, are the most vital of the mix, but prebiotics and fibre are also needed if you want a healthy gut environment that enables you to absorb nutrients well, keep immunity strong and avoid bloating, wind and bowel problems.
A prebiotic is a substance that can’t be digested or absorbed and acts as a food source for beneficial bacteria in the gut, resulting in an improved gut flora balance. What we want are the food sources that specifically feed the lactic acid-producing bacteria in the gut, the best-known of which are lactobacillus and bifidobacteria.
Encouraging a healthy bacteria balance means there is less potential for unfavourable organisms like bacteria, yeasts and moulds to get a look-in and the beneficial bacteria are in sufficient numbers to produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). The benefits of this include increased immunity, enhanced mineral absorption and a strong gut lining, to name just a few.
Encouraging the production of the L+ type of lactic acid specifically in the gut has additional effects, especially on the stomach and pancreas. We know that iron and calcium are best absorbed when the L+ is present, that pancreatic support results in better carbohydrate metabolism and fewer sugar cravings, and that L+ can reduce stomach-emptying time, which means you feel fuller for longer.
It’s not just about improving the gut, though; prebiotics have been found to have their own individual effects too. They are thought to lower cholesterol and have powerful immune, cancer-fighting and anti-inflammatory properties. They may also help us avoid allergy: feeding a pro- and pre-biotic mix to third-trimester pregnant women and continuing with the newborns has been shown to prevent eczema in high risk babies, for example.
Types Of Prebiotic
Fructo-oligosaccharides [FOSs] are the most common type of prebiotic and are found in vegetables such as artichoke (especially Jerusalem), onions, garlic and chicory, the latter being the source of most prebiotic supplements.
Other FOS-rich foods include honey, banana, asparagus, leeks and the gluten grains and, happily, FOS can even come as a sweet powder, which makes it an ideal sugar substitute.
There are other types of prebiotic including raffinose from legumes, xylo-oligosaccharides in oats and galacto-oligosaccharides from milk (cow, human and yogurt). Each type tends to benefit a particular bacteria species in the gut, so getting a mix of these foods is a good policy. Interestingly milk tends to benefit bifidobacteria whereas oats and legumes target this plus lactobacillus, so if you are milk intolerant, you won’t miss out.
All prebiotics, whether from food or supplements, will do the job because none of them can be broken down. In the West, we are thought to eat around 5g of FOSs a day. The optimum intake is said to be about 10g, but you need to step levels up slowly if you want to avoid extra wind!
So, what about the third musketeer in this bowel attack team? So-called ‘colonic foods’ are important as they can also help increase the correct bowel bacteria, although they are more broad-brush in effect than the prebiotics and can increase both good and bad types, making choosing the right ones a priority.
The most beneficial fibres include psyllium husks, pectin, slippery elm, guar gum and come from foods such as oats, carrots, brown rice, tea polyphenols and resistant starches. A resistant starch means that a portion of the starch in foods like fruit, veg, pulses and whole grains is resistant to digestive enzymes and ends up in the colon, fermenting merrily away and providing energy for the bacteria residing there.
So, the next time you think of improving your health and bowel, remember the three musketeers and add prebiotics and the right fibres alongside your probiotics!
First published in November 2010
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