It seems like you can’t talk about health lately without talking about gut health. And there’s a good reason for that. The health of your gut microbiome—the collection of bacteria, yeast, and other organisms residing in your lower intestines—has been shown to influence everything from digestion to inflammation to mental health to immunity.
If your gut is in healthy balance (meaning, it contains more good microbes than bad ones), the rest of your body is likely to be in balance, too.
So, how do you keep your gut happy? Probiotics and prebiotics both play a huge role in the health of your microbiome. Here, learn what they do and how to get more in your diet.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria found in certain foods and supplements that are similar to those naturally found in your gut. When you eat these “good” probiotic bacteria, they can help repopulate your gut microbiome and change the balance of bacterial species residing there. This can be especially helpful after a course of antibiotics, which wipes out good bacteria along with the bad. In fact, a large body of research suggests that probiotic supplements can help alleviate diarrhea associated with taking antibiotics.
There are different species of probiotic bacteria, including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, and within those species there are different strains—for example, L. acidophilus, L. reuteri, L. rhamnosus, and B. bifidum. These strains of bacteria all play slightly different roles in the body, some of which researchers haven’t even identified yet! In fact, while many probiotics positively impact digestion and help alleviate IBS symptoms, some specific probiotic strains such as L. rhamnosus have been associated with improvements in anxiety and depression, too.
Because of the gut microbiome’s widespread impact on the rest of the body, it’s smart to prioritize probiotic foods, and possibly supplements. The main dietary sources of probiotics are fermented foods, which include:
- Cultured cottage cheese
- Probiotic-fortified foods (including Ka’Chava, which contains L. acidophilus and L. rhamnosus)
What are prebiotics?
Prebiotics are the food source for healthy bacteria in your gut—meaning, probiotics eat prebiotics—so, they’re essential for a robust and healthy gut microbiome. Specifically, prebiotics are non-digestible fibers found in plant foods such as vegetables and whole grains. (Keep in mind, a prebiotic is a type of fiber, but not all fiber is prebiotic). Prebiotics remain undigested as they pass through your GI tract, until they reach the colon, where they’re broken down by your gut bacteria.
As a result of breaking down prebiotics, your gut bacteria produce compounds called short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which are sometimes referred to as postbiotics. SCFAs are pretty great—they’re anti-inflammatory and serve as a source of fuel and nourishment for the cells lining your intestines. They’re believed to help heal a “leaky gut” (i.e. increased intestinal permeability) and alleviate the conditions that go along with it.
Prebiotics are present in loads of plant foods, as well as in fiber supplements in the form of inulin and psyllium (Ka’Chava contains inulin and naturally prebiotic foods such as cabbage, asparagus, and flaxseeds). A good general rule is to prioritize high-fiber foods, but if you really want to maximize prebiotic intake, top dietary sources include:
- Dandelion greens
- Green peas
- Snow peas
- Jerusalem artichoke
- Chicory root