Did you know that your gut is home to trillions of tiny creatures that can make or break your health? These creatures, mostly bacteria, are called the gut microbiota or gut flora, and they help you digest your food, fight off infections, regulate your metabolism and even influence your mood. But sometimes, these friendly bacteria can get out of balance due to factors like stress, antibiotics, illness or junk food. That’s when you may need some extra help from supplements that contain probiotics and prebiotics, or both. But what are they and how do they work? Here’s everything you need to know about these gut-boosting supplements.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are live microorganisms that can improve your health when you consume them in the right amounts. They are usually bacteria, but can also include yeasts and other microbes. Probiotics can help restore or enhance the diversity and function of your gut microbiota, especially after it has been disrupted by something. Probiotics may also support your immune system, prevent or treat infections, improve your digestion and nutrient absorption, and produce beneficial substances such as vitamins and short-chain fatty acids.
What are prebiotics?
Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates that act as food for the probiotics and other good bacteria in your gut. They are mostly types of fiber that can resist digestion in your small intestine and reach your large intestine intact. There, they are fermented by your gut bacteria, resulting in the production of short-chain fatty acids and other compounds that can have positive effects on your gut barrier, inflammation, blood sugar regulation and appetite control.
What are the benefits of taking probiotics and prebiotics?
There is growing evidence that taking probiotics and prebiotics can have various health benefits, depending on the type, dose and duration of supplementation. Some of the potential benefits include:
- Relieving symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), diarrhea, constipation and other digestive issues.
- Enhancing immune function and preventing or treating infections such as urinary tract infections (UTIs), vaginal infections, respiratory infections and Clostridium difficile infection.
- Reducing the risk or severity of allergic diseases such as eczema, asthma and food allergies.
- Supporting mental health and mood by influencing the gut-brain axis.
- Modulating metabolic factors such as blood pressure, cholesterol levels, blood sugar levels and body weight.
However, not all probiotics and prebiotics are equally effective for every condition or person. The effects may vary depending on the strain or species of probiotics, the amount and type of prebiotics, the individual characteristics of the host (such as age, genetics, diet and health status) and the interaction with other factors in the environment. Therefore, more research is needed to determine the best combinations and doses of probiotics and prebiotics for different purposes.
What are some sources of probiotics and prebiotics?
Probiotics and prebiotics can be found naturally in some foods or added to others as functional ingredients. They can also be taken as dietary supplements in various forms such as capsules, tablets, powders or liquids.
Some examples of foods that contain probiotics are:
Some examples of foods that contain prebiotics are:
- Whole grains
- Chicory root
When choosing probiotic foods or supplements, it is important to look for products that specify the strain or species of probiotics, the number of live organisms per serving (usually expressed in colony forming units or CFUs), the expiration date and the storage conditions. When choosing prebiotic foods or supplements, it is important to consume a variety of sources to provide different types of fiber for different types of bacteria.
What are the possible side effects of taking probiotics and prebiotics?
Probiotics and prebiotics are generally considered safe for most healthy adults when taken in moderate amounts. However, some people may experience mild side effects such as gas, bloating, diarrhea or constipation when they start taking them or change their dose. These side effects usually go away within a few days or weeks as your body adjusts to the new balance of bacteria in your gut.
In rare cases, probiotics may cause serious adverse reactions such as infections or allergic reactions in people with compromised immune systems or underlying medical conditions. Therefore, people who have a weakened immune system (such as those with HIV, cancer, organ transplants or autoimmune diseases), who are pregnant or breastfeeding, who are taking immunosuppressive drugs or antibiotics, or who have a history of allergies or intolerance to probiotics should consult their doctor before taking probiotics or prebiotics.
Probiotics and prebiotics are supplements that can help support the health and balance of your gut microbiota, which in turn can have positive effects on various aspects of your physical and mental health. However, not all probiotics and prebiotics are the same and their effects may depend on many factors. Therefore, it is advisable to consult a health professional before taking probiotics or prebiotics, especially if you have any medical conditions or concerns. You should also follow the instructions on the label and monitor your response to the supplements. Finally, you should also eat a balanced and varied diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fermented foods to nourish your gut microbiota naturally.