Probiotics are known to help with digestion. But there’s a new neighbour in town that’s trending: welcome, prebiotics.

For the most part, probiotics are thought of as “good” bacteria that help gut health, especially after use of antibiotics. Antibiotics kill bacteria in a person’s digestive system, which can cause serious gut health problems. So, just like filling up your gas tank when it’s running low, we take probiotics to fill up our microbiome. Or at least, that’s what we thought.

What’s changed?

Two studies, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Cell, show that the bacterial profile of each person’s gut is different. Some people respond well to probiotics, while for others, probiotics delay the growth of “good” bacteria.

Good bacteria process compounds that humans cannot and are thus essential to human digestion. Gut bacteria help to digest certain proteins, plant carbohydrates, and vitamins. Good bacteria also play a key role in our immune systems, protecting us against foreign invaders. But, instead of the probiotics filling up an empty gas tank, they can invade the gut’s delicate microbiome which upsets the balanced system.

The gut microbiome fights change because the body always wants to return to homeostasis or balance. Over time, the microbiome will naturally restore itself, but probiotics aim to colonize the microbiome. This colonization, if successful, creates a new microbiome that replaces the previously depleted bacteria. Issues arise when the probiotic is unsuccessful in colonization. The original bacteria’s growth is delayed while the probiotic bacteria passes through the system.

These studies suggest that the colonization of bacteria is dependent on the individual, and while the probiotics may not benefit people by coloniza- tion, they still had positive effects. The positive effects occur as you digest the probiotic.

Probiotics help with digestion and stimulate the immune system because the bacteria in probiotics have the same beneficial effect as the bacteria in your gut. If it does not colonize, it will still give you the short-term benefits as it passes through your system. But remember, probiotics can slow the recovery of your natural microbiome.

After taking antibiotics, the priority should be to restore the lost bacteria that are key for gut health. Having an unhealthy gut can cause a list of problems such as:

1. Upset stomach: which includes symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, and heartburn.

2. Weight change: having fewer “good” bacteria can affect digestion of food and the absorption of nutrients.

3. Bad skin: eczema can be caused by proteins released from the digestive system if it becomes inflamed.

That was pro-, but what’s pre-?

Prebiotics help restore a person’s gut microbiome by feeding the “good” bacteria that are already there with non-digestible carbohydrates. These compounds are commonly found in plant-based foods. That means whole grains, bananas, and beans. With food comes the growth of existing bacteria, stimulating repopulation of the microbiome. Prebiotics should be taken routinely. A healthy lifestyle includes a healthy diet and adding prebiotic food to your diet is an easy way to improve gut health.

The microbiome is made up of hundreds of different species of bacteria. We coexist with our bacteria. We provide a home and food for the microbiome, while bacteria help us digest food and fight off harmful viruses by alerting the immune system to their presence. Before changing your diet or starting probiotics, seek the advice of your health care provider.

For your grocery list:

These foods are all packed with highly probiotic qualities.

1. Yogurt, which is milk that has been fermented by “good” bacteria.

2. Sauerkraut, a cultured vegetable made by fermenting cabbage.

3. Kombucha, a drink made by fermenting black tea.

4. Raw and unpasteurized cheese.

More Inspiration: You might also be interested in this article on the healthy microbiome of the vagina.

Author: David Whittaker is an occasional writer for Optimyz print and digital editions.

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