The Benefits of Probiotics & Prebiotics
Trillions of “good” bacteria live inside our body. There’s an entire ecosystem—or, microbiome—in our gut! And gut health matters; it’s intertwined with our immune system, which is linked with diabetes, weight loss, and allergies. Learn more about gut health and how to take steps to keep those microbes healthy and happy!
What Is the Microbiome? What Does It Do?
The microbiome is the colony of microorganisms that make up the ecosystem of our body. Yes, our body is home to many microbes—bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses. In fact, microbes outnumber our human cells ten to one.
While we often think of bacteria as “bad,” most of the bacteria in our gut is “good” and needs to be fed to stay healthy.
The majority of bacteria and microbes live in our gut, mostly in the large intestine, communicating with the immune system and the brain. The health of these bacterial communities directly influences our own health. Yes, it’s all interconnected!
Early research shows that a diverse and balanced microbiome is important for physical and mental health.
This illustration originally appeared in the Hartford Courant.
The microbiome helps your body digest food that we could not otherwise digest. They help provide vitamins. They regulate our immune system and protect against disease.
In addition, your microbiome can affect which diseases you get, how well you gain or lose weight, and more:
- Obesity has been associated with a poor combination of microbes in the gut.
- Type I diabetes is an autoimmune disease associated with a less diverse gut.
- Dust from homes with dogs may reduce the immune response to allergens and other asthma triggers by changing the composition of the gut microbiome. Infants who live in homes with dogs have been found to be less likely to develop childhood allergies.
Where Do Microbiomes Come From?
Genetics play a big role in shaping the microbiome. Also, much of your microbiome comes from your mother during birth and breastfeeding, and during the first couple years of your life. For example, studies show that having a vaginal birth, breastfeeding, and avoiding unnecessary antibiotics are very important.
However, throughout life, we add to our microbiome from the food we eat, interacting with animals and plants, socializing with siblings and other people, playing in the dirt, and pretty much anything else we contact in our environment.
Is Everybody’s Microbiome the Same?
No. The species and distribution of microbes within the microbiome vary greatly among individuals. Your microbiome is unique to you and changes continuously throughout your life, depending on your life experiences. Everyone can take steps to improve chances that their gut health is healthy and stable, from eating a high-fiber diet and prebiotic foods to avoiding overuse of antibiotics.
What Do Antibiotics Have To Do With the Microbiome?
Taking an antibiotic is like nuking bacteria—including all that beneficial bacteria in our microbiome—sometimes permanently. Researchers hypothesize that one dramatic “collateral harm” of the widespread use of antibiotics has been the loss of intestinal microbes.
Many scientists have suggested that we, as a society, should be slower to give young children antibiotics. (Note: This is not a statement rejecting antibiotics in general! Always consult a doctor before taking health-related actions.)
What Else Can Harm Microbiomes?
Antibacterials such as those we use to clean our homes, sterilize food-preparation surfaces, or wash our hands or even our food may also kill off the good bacteria we depend on. Antimicrobials are also found in food-packaging materials, athletic shoes, and clothing. Many scientists suggest moving away from an over-reliance on these antibacterial products. Get kids exposure to the outdoors and dirt, thus building up the health of the microbiome.
How Can I Improve My Gut Health?
If you do anything, consider these two steps:
- A plant-based diet seems to be healthier than a meat or fat-based diet. However, this isn’t an instant fix. (See next section, below.)
- As said many times above, don’t use antibiotics unless you really have to.
You are what you eat. But if you are going to change from a typical American diet high in processed foods and carbohydrates to a diet that is more plant-based or meat-based, your body may not react quickly.
Think of your gut as an active community; it takes a long time to build a healthy community, but it will happen.
Which Foods Should I Eat for Good Gut Health?
- Consume prebiotic foods. We’re talking about a diet rich in vegetables, especially fibrous vegetables such as asparagus, cabbage, root vegetables, onions, garlic, and leeks. Other prebiotic foods include dry beans and other legumes, and whole grains. The goal is to eat nondigestible carbohydrates; they are found in foods that are high in fiber.
- Also, consume probiotic foods. We’re talking about fermentation! Examples of probiotic foods include include yogurt, kefir, kombucha, fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut and kimchi, miso, pickles, soft cheeses, and (hooray!) dark chocolate. Probiotic foods include live micro-organisms. When they get fermented by the microbes in the gut, this nourishes the microbiome and health.
A little fermentation goes a long way to activate and nourish your your microbiome!
Fermentation has been around for centuries and it was originally used to preserve food before refrigeration. While modern conveniences are great, we also want those live bacteria (probiotics) added to the healthy mix of microbes in our gut.
See if you can add some fermented foods or drinks to your diet. You can buy fermented, canned products in the store, but if you want to try it yourself, all you need are fresh vegetables! It’s MUCH less expensive. See our recipes and try one out!
- How to make fruit kvass
- How to make beet kvass
- How to make kombucha
- How to make fermented mayonnaise
- How to make kimchi
- How to make whey
- How to make creme fraiche
- How to make fermented bread and butter pickles
Should You Take a Probiotic Supplement?
Many Americans are getting their probiotics by taking over-the-counter supplements to improve their digestive health and immune systems. These supplements are made with lab-grown bacteria. But should you take one? If so, which one? Can these products really improve your gut bacteria?
Many (but not all) doctors will say that supplements are expensive and not needed for healthy people. It’s better to eat truly good probiotic foods like yogurts versus buying a bottle of medicine for a quick fix.
These supplements are unregulated and may pose many concerns related to labeling truth, quality, and dosing. From the health standpoint, how many strains of which bacteria do you need and how often? Will the live bacteria you swallow survive their passage through the acidic stomach contents? Can some of the live bacteria contained in a probiotic supplement harm some people?
More testing and trials are needed to determine whether commercial probiotics are effective and beneficial to the microbiome.
What About Prebiotics?
Fortunately, we already know that a diet rich in prebiotics is well-proven. A variety of vegetables and legumes and whole grains (oatmeal, whole grain bread and flour) are natural supplements that keep the gut healthy and happy. Lowering sugar, saturated fat, and alcohol also makes for happy gut bugs.
Research has also shown that those who exercise have a more diverse, healthy microbiome. Movement and activity is healthy.
Where Can I Learn More About Gut Microbiomes?
With new research papers and popular articles appearing on a daily basis, health consumers should remain open, but skeptical. I would recommend this wonderful unit on the human microbiome from the University of Utah genetics department as a quick and easy way to learn some of the critical functions of microbes in our bodies.
Exciting though microbiome research appears, many medical and ethical questions remain (page 2). Keep them in mind as you begin seeing advertisements for products or services promising to analyze, protect, or improve your microbiome. And keep your critical eye open as you begin exploring news articles and research reports on this exciting new field of health research. Some day, we may design diets (how we eat) in sync with our unique microbiome for a healthier life!
For now, what we do know are the basics: Eat healthily. (This means unprocessed foods; food rich in probiotics and prebiotics; food with nutrients your body needs.) Start walking and moving. Get outside. Interact with animals and plants and nature. Work at reducing stress. And keep learning!