Are You Getting Enough Prebiotics? Here's How To Know For Sure

Photo: Alita Ong

Research about the microbiome (the ecosystem of bacteria living in and on our bodies) and its overwhelmingly positive effects on nearly every aspect of our health has exploded in recent years. In response, more and more health-conscious consumers are doing all they can to increase the number of life-supporting friendly flora in their bodies—by taking probiotic supplements and upping their consumption of probiotic-rich foods like kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, and other fermented fare.

And don’t get me wrong...this is all crucial to achieving optimal health. But, if we don’t focus on nourishing our beneficial bacteria within, we may be missing a very important piece of the puzzle. We’re now learning that it’s not enough to just replenish our microbiome with probiotics; what we feed our beneficial bacteria makes all the difference when it comes to our gut (and overall) health.

Prebiotic fiber is the foundation of a healthy gut.

While bad bacteria feast on sugar and other unhealthy foods in your diet, the good guys crave only one thing: prebiotic fiber. Undigestible by the human gastrointestinal tract, prebiotic fibers are plant fibers that make their way undigested to the colon, where friendly microflora ferment them and use them as fuel. Like fertilizer for a garden, these "prebiotics" can stimulate the growth of organisms like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria, probiotic species that are absolutely essential for your health.

It’s often said that both disease and health begin in the gut, and research now shows that our consumption of prebiotic fiber may be the single most important determinant that tips the scales either way. Here are five researched-backed reasons why prebiotics are the gateway to your health:

1. Improved digestion.

By significantly boosting the numbers of beneficial bacteria in your digestive tract—the same microbes that help you break down your food and absorb nutrients from your diet—prebiotics can help with common digestive issues like gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.

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2. Enhanced mineral absorption.

Beneficial bacteria can ferment prebiotic fibers into short-chain fatty acids that make the colon more acidic. This lower pH enhances mineral solubility, which enables your body to absorb more of the minerals in the foods and supplements you eat. In one study, three weeks of prebiotic supplementation led to significant improvements in calcium absorption in 10- to 13-year-old girls. In another, prebiotic intake increased bioavailability of heme iron by 56 percent!

3. Decreased stress and anxiety.

Our guts and our brains are inextricably connected, and studies show that probiotics can influence how we feel by regulating and producing brain chemicals like serotonin. The good news is that we can also add prebiotics to the list of mood-enhancing remedies. Prebiotics can lower stress-related hormones, and they have anti-anxiety and antidepressant-like effects in the body.

4. Increased weight loss.

Not only can prebiotics help you burn 20 to 30 percent more fat, prebiotic fiber can also decrease hormones in your body that tell you when you’re hungry and increase hormones that tell you when you’re full—making it much easier to achieve and maintain your weight loss goals. In a research trial, overweight and obese children who consumed prebiotics for four months experienced significant decreases in weight and body fat percentage.

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5. Optimized immunity.

A strong intestinal barrier is paramount to optimal immune function, so anything that strengthens it will benefit your immune system. Some prebiotics (like acacia fiber) specifically nourish bacteria that can ferment the fibers into short-chain fatty acids like butyrate, that nourishes intestinal cells and helps to seal barrier gaps so harmful bacteria and toxins can’t get into the bloodstream. Prebiotics also reduce allergic (and inflammatory) immune responses that send the immune system into overdrive.

Research shows us that prebiotics work hand-in-hand with probiotics to keep you healthy, but unfortunately, getting enough prebiotic fiber in your diet isn’t as easy as it sounds.

These days, our diets are tragically low in fiber.

Archaeological evidence reveals that humans 10,000 years ago who lived a hunter-forager lifestyle consumed approximately 135 grams of prebiotic fiber every single day. If you’re thinking that this sounds like an abnormally high number compared to current standards (that’s a lot of fiber bars!), you’re spot on. In fact, we’re lucky to get even 10 percent of that amount of healthy prebiotic fiber in our diets—most Americans eat only 10 to 15 grams of total fiber per day. Our ancestors also had far more diverse microbiomes than humans living a "modern" lifestyle today, and they lived free from many of the diseases we face. However, without probiotic supplements and grocery stores stocked with the latest probiotic-infused drinks and foods, how were they still able to maintain a rich diversity of microbes in their guts?

Many researchers think the answers lie in how much prebiotic fiber prehistoric humans had access to as they foraged for food—fiber that nourished and fueled their friendly flora and helped them stay healthy in the face of many challenges. For example, Aborigines in Australia ate nearly 300 different varieties of fruit, 150 types of tubers and roots, and countless seeds, nuts, and vegetables!

Even modern-day hunter-gatherers—like the Hadza in Tanzania, who have been in the area for thousands of years and still live a very traditional pre-agriculture lifestyle—harbor much "richer" microbiomes (nearly double the biodiversity) than people living in the West, due to their extensive foraging. In contrast, we live in a society rife with processed foods devoid of the fiber and nutrition our microbes desperately need. And the truth is, even if we were to commit ourselves to eating as much prebiotic fiber as possible, it’d be very difficult to get even close to the 100 daily grams our ancestors consumed.

How to take matters into your own hands.

The good news in all of this? Our bodies and microbiomes have evolved to thrive on massive amounts of prebiotic fiber, and we can increase our bacterial diversity—and vastly improve our health—just by increasing our prebiotic consumption. Furthermore, our microbiomes are incredibly malleable, unlike our genetics. We can see this with the Hadza microbiota, which changes significantly with the dietary fluctuations of the seasons—some microbial species disappear entirely, only to reappear again the next season.

This means that we have the power to influence our health on a grand scale just by altering our diet. In one fascinating experiment, professor Tim Spector lived and ate with the Hadza for just three days; after his short time with the tribe, the microbial diversity in his gut increased by a whopping 20 percent! Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the opportunity to go forage for three days, so what can you do in your own corner of the world to enrich and nourish your microbiome with prebiotics?

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1. Include prebiotic foods.

Incorporate as many prebiotic-rich foods in your diet as you can—nearly every plant-based food has some prebiotics, but leafy greens (the more bitter, the better), apples, kiwifruit, bananas, walnuts, dandelion greens, jicama, Jerusalem artichoke, onions, and garlic are particularly good sources. As easy as it sounds, loading up on a variety of colorful veggies at every meal requires quite a bit of forward thinking in today’s day and age, especially if you eat outside of your own home. So, plan ahead, ask your waiter for a special side, and when you must, BYOG (bring your own greens).

2. Take a food-based prebiotic supplement.

Because it’s so difficult to get enough prebiotic fiber from a modern diet alone, look for an organic, food-based prebiotic powder supplement that delivers a complete blend of prebiotics for total microbial support, like resistant starch, soluble fiber, inulin, and FOS. The best part? You can easily add prebiotic powder to smoothies, soft foods, and beverages to give your beneficial bacteria a complete meal any time of day.

3. Protect your precious probiotics.

Prebiotics won’t do your microbiome any good if you don’t have any beneficial bacteria left to nourish! The problem is that our modern lifestyles are tough on our microbial friends. From antibiotics in food and medicine that wipe out all the good guys to antibacterial cleansers, environmental toxins, and processed food diets, our microbiome is under constant threat. Live a gut-healthy life by fortifying your gut with a high-quality probiotic supplement and staying away from anything that threatens to harm your microscopic friends within.

As human beings, we play host to trillions of microbes that work tirelessly to keep us healthy, and as with any living organism, the beneficial bacteria that live in our gut must eat to be able to properly support us from the inside out. But, just like a houseguest that will look elsewhere for food when faced with an empty refrigerator, our friendly flora will look for sustenance in other places if we don’t give them the fiber they need—and the consequences can be devastating. Studies show that microbes living in a fiber-deprived colon will start to eat away at the gut’s mucus layer, which protects us from dangerous pathogens and harmful bacteria. Even worse, our beneficial microbes may start to dwindle in numbers, which directly affects nearly every aspect of our health.

Indeed, we have a mutually beneficial relationship with our superhero microbes, and we owe it to ourselves to give them all the prebiotic support they need to be able to help us live our happiest, healthiest days!

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