How Prebiotics Help Gut Health

BY: ANDREA HARDY, RD

Do you take a probiotic for gut health every day? Let me stop you righttttt there. While probiotics may be helpful in managing specific conditions – what REALLY matters when it comes to gut health are ‘prebiotics’.

See the difference there? Pre, versus Pro. Many of you may know that probiotics are living bacteria. However, when I say the word ‘pre’biotic – people often give me a funny look.

No, I’m not just pronouncing probiotic incorrectly, pre and probiotics are two different things! (to throw some confusion in the mix ‘post-biotics’ is now a thing too).

So, what are ‘prebiotics’?

Prebiotics are beneficial compounds that act as food for bacteria and can improve our health. Prebiotics are undigestible parts of food that reach the colon without being absorbed, for example, resistant starch. These undigested particles as fuel for the large numbers of bacteria in your colon.

These bacteria play a very important role in maintaining our health – everything from our immune system, to inflammation to energy – which is why we want to keep them healthy. We can do that by feeding them prebiotics.

What do prebiotics do for our guts?

This is often a surprise to people – but consuming prebiotics are far more important for gut health than probiotics.

When prebiotics act as fuel for the bacteria in our gut, those bacteria then go on to produce ‘post-biotics’ – or beneficial compounds that do important things for our health. Those post-biotics provide our gut wall the energy it needs to stay healthy, defend against bad bacteria or immune-activating compounds, act as anti-inflammatory compounds, regulate hormone production and so much more.

By ensuring adequate intake of prebiotics, we can improve abundance and variety of bacteria in our gut – which is associated with better overall gut health.

When we don’t fuel our gut bacteria with enough prebiotics, bacteria have to find fuel from other sources. In fact, it’s been shown in animal models that bacteria will eat the all-important mucous layer in your gut – which is your first line of defence against invasion of potential harmful compounds.

It’s also been found that when we displace prebiotic rich foods with things like animal proteins, the bacteria will use the undigested protein as fuel and instead of producing helpful post-biotics, can produce pro-inflammatory compounds.

Where can you get prebiotics in your diet?

There is a lot of research around the topic of prebiotics emerging. Traditionally, we had thought only a few types of fibres acted as prebiotics. As our knowledge on the gut microbiota has grown, we have started to see other substances have a ‘prebiotic’ like effect on the gut microbiota. These are considered ‘candidate prebiotics’ and will likely move to be classified as prebiotics as more research is done. What I love about how our list of prebiotics is growing is – it emphasizes WHY variety is so important – because different bacteria snack on different prebiotics or prebiotic candidates.

I like to encourage my patients to get a variety of prebiotic and ‘candidate’ prebiotic foods. Examples of these include:

  • Whole wheat products
  • Pulses & legumes (think chickpeas, lentils, black beans etc.)
  • Cooked and cooled pasta, rice, and potato
  • Oats
  • Nuts & seeds
  • The skins of fruit and vegetables
  • Certain fruits and vegetables, like onion, garlic, artichoke, asparagus, beets, brussels sprouts, winter squash, cauliflower, celery, peas, dried fruits, unripened bananas

Other sources include fibre supplements. One of my go-to prebiotic fibres is actually from a Canadian company – MSPrebiotic! MSPrebiotic is a resistant starch, prebiotic fibresupplement made from potatoes, and packs 7g of fibre in 1 small scoop.

Resistant starch is slowly fermented in the gut, which means it tends to be quite well tolerated for those with digestive issues. Resistant starch has a positive effect on the gut microbiota, in fact, MSPrebiotic has been shown to stimulate the growth of a type of good bacteria in the gut called bifidobacteria.

Not only that, but in one study they showed the role of using MSPrebiotic to reduce insulin resistance and improve blood glucose. What I LOVE about this research is, it goes to show the complex role the gut microbiota has in hormone production and maintaining blood sugars, and that by adding prebiotic fibre, we can manipulate the gut microbiota in a way that provides a benefit to human health!

I tend to mix my MSPrebiotic in a post-workout smoothie, or into my oatmeal. As someone with IBS, I found I could tolerate, and stick to a half scoop – so start low and go slow if you do happen to have IBS! Everyone else I’ve had take seems to tolerate a full scoop just fine – more fuel for those gut microbes!

How much should I be eating?

While there isn’t a recommended daily amount of prebiotics to consume (yet!), current fibre guidelines suggest we should be consuming 25-38 grams of fibre a day. The average North American gets HALF that – meaning – we’re likely not consuming enough prebiotic fibres. My prediction is, as we learn more about the gut microbiota, our current fibre targets will also increase.

TRUST ME. I see a lot of food records in my office. Even those who ‘think’ they do OK with veg are usually hitting around 15 – 20 grams of fibre. To get the right amount of fibre in takes planning!

I also like to tell my patients that variety is not just the spice of life, it’s the key to a healthy gut microbiota. In fact, research shows that dietary variety is the primary driver of having an abundance of bacteria, and restrictive diets, like the ketogenic, or low carb diet, can actually harm that.

So. How the heck do we get more fibre and prebiotics in?

The WGO has released a new set of guidelines on diet and the gut that suggest that, if individuals consistently don’t get enough fibre or cannot meet their fibre intakes – fibre supplements should be considered.

I personally, am a big fan. As someone with IBS myself, I have to be careful with how I stack my prebiotic rich foods, often limiting the total amount of prebiotics I can take from food sources in a day.

Other reasons why I like fibre supplements is, it takes the focus off of ‘perfect’ eating. I admittedly eat less veggies during the weekend. And that’s OK. To boost my fibre intake, using a prebiotic fibre supplement like MSPrebiotic is a way to keep my gut bacteria well fed.

I either mix it in my smoothie, or I take it before bed – for my patients more sensitive to fermentation, I find this is the best time to take it so that your bacteria can be fed all night long, and that the process of that fermentation isn’t bothersome!

Take Home Message

Ultimately, the goal to increase your intake of prebiotics is to include more plants in your diet, and to consider a fibre supplement, like MSPrebiotic if you aren’t hitting your fibre targets or your fibre intake fluctuates day to day.

Disclosure: This is a sponsored post. I was compensated for my time in writing this post. While the information conveyed may support clients’ objectives, the opinions expressed are my own and based on current scientific evidence. I do not engage in business with companies whose products or services do not match my personal and professional beliefs.

References

  1. Desai MS, Seekatz AM, Koropatkin NM, et al. A dietary fiber-deprived gut microbiota degrades the colonic mucus barrier and enhances pathogen susceptibility. Cell. 2016; 167(5):1339-53. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2016.10.043.
  2. Zhao, J., Zhang, X., Liu, H., Brown, M. A., & Qiao, S. (2018). Dietary Protein and Gut Microbiota Composition and Function. Current Protein & Peptide Science, 20(2), 145-154. doi:10.2174/1389203719666180514145437
  3. Alfa, M. J., Strang, D., Tappia, P. S., Graham, M., Domselaar, G. V., Forbes, J. D., . . . Lix, L. M. (2018). A randomized trial to determine the impact of a digestion resistant starch composition on the gut microbiome in older and mid-age adults.Clinical Nutrition,37(3), 797-807. doi:10.1016/j.clnu.2017.03.025
  4. Alfa, M. J., Strang, D., Tappia, P. S., Olson, N., Degagne, P., Bray, D., . . . Hiebert, B. (2018). A Randomized Placebo Controlled Clinical Trial to Determine the Impact of Digestion Resistant Starch MSPrebiotic® on Glucose, Insulin, and Insulin Resistance in Elderly and Mid-Age Adults. Frontiers in Medicine, 4. doi:10.3389/fmed.2017.00260