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Prebiotics: Fertilizer for Your Digestive Garden

By Brian J. Myers, ND

Probiotics have really stepped into the spotlight in the past few years. New research linking gut health and pathologies like depression is proving what naturopathic doctors have been saying for a long time – the gut-brain connection is not to be ignored.

By extension, gut health is of prime importance. To be clear, probiotics are a necessarily important staple in everyone’s nutrition; their name alone highlights that fact: pro = good and biotics = bacteria. While probiotics do more to regulate our immune system and increase the quantity of beneficial bacteria, they don’t do much to change the diversity, which is of equal importance. So how does one increase bacterial diversity and why is that diversity important?

Your digestive system can be compared to a garden. Before planting a garden it is important to optimize the soil with fertilizer to help grow the right plants. In this example, probiotics are the plants and the fertilizer is prebiotics. Prebiotics are a source of food for probiotics to grow, multiply, and thrive in the gut. Essentially they are fertilizer for the microbiome within our gut; primarily found in our large intestine and colon.

Prebiotics are special plant fibers that meet the following classification:

  • Resists gastric acidity, hydrolysis by mammalian enzymes, and absorption in the upper gastrointestinal tract;
  • Is fermented by the intestinal microflora;
  • Selectively stimulates the growth and/or activity of intestinal bacteria potentially associated with health and well-being.

In other words, our body itself doesn’t digest these fibers, which are also referred to as either soluble fibers or resistant starches. Instead, our microflora, or beneficial bacteria, digests them; they are food for your flora. Examples of these foods are mostly plants and include asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, bananas, leeks, yams, onions, and chicory, to name a few. Prebiotics, as well as probiotics, are also found in breast milk.

Health benefits of increased prebiotic consumption have been linked to increased magnesium and calcium absorption, improved symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), beneficial changes in cholesterol profiles, decrease in lab values associated with type 2 diabetes, and increased butyric acid, which helps regulate metabolism, inflammation, and stress resistance. Meanwhile, long-term use of medications such as proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) have been shown to have a negative effect on the quantity and diversity of our gastrointestinal microflora, so use of those should be evaluated closely.

There is plenty to keep in mind when preparing your meals. Making sure to provide foods that promote microbiome diversity is important for your overall health on many levels, so be sure to get a healthy serving of prebiotics!

Dr. Brian Myers is a naturopathic primary care doctor with a focus on pediatric and family medicine at Live Well Clinic in La Quinta. For more information, go to www.livewellclinic.org or call (760) 771.5970.

Sources: 1) Slavin J. Fiber and Prebiotics: Mechanisms and Health Benefits. Nutrients. 2013 Apr; 5(4): 1417-1435; 2) Roberfroid M. Prebiotics: The Concept Revisited. The Journal of Nutrition. 2007 Mar; vol. 137 no. 3 8305-8375; 3) Jenkins DJA, Kendall CWC, Vuksan V. Inulin, Oligofructose and Intestinal Function. The Journal of Nutrition. 1999 Jul; vol. 129 no. 7 14315-1433s.

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