Liz Alvis Parry
It’s probably not something that we think about often, but every time we eat a meal, there is a whirl of activity taking place in our digestive systems. A whole mass of bacteria, viruses, fungi, archaea and protozoa – otherwise known as the microbiome – is busily working away in our intestines, breaking down our food.
“The microbiome has an enormous impact on our health,” explains Fiona Lawson a registered nutritional therapist with a special interest in gut health. “Not only does it help us break down our food, but it also helps us to synthesise neurotransmitters, so it influences our mood. It plays a role in our hormonal and immune function too, and even our metabolism.”
When there is an imbalance between the good and bad bacteria in our guts, this can lead to uncomfortable bloating and difficult digestion. In order to optimise the good bacteria, we need to feed them with prebiotics and provide them with extra support via probiotics. So, what are the differences between prebiotics and probiotics?
“Prebiotics are special types of fibre,” explains Fiona. “We can’t digest them, but our gut bacteria can. Prebiotics effectively provide the fuel for our good bacteria to flourish. Probiotics are the pre-formed good bacteria. Through regular consumption of probiotics – either through food or supplements – we can help to ‘crowd out’ any bad bacteria in the gut.”
Fiona recommends aiming to optimise your prebiotic and probiotic intake through diet first, before looking to further support your gut health with supplements. There are plenty of food sources to choose from when it comes to increasing your prebiotic intake. These include onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus and bananas. Fiona advises aiming to eat at least one large handful of these foods daily. She adds, “For an extra hit of prebiotics, eat cooked and cooled potatoes twice a week. This cooking-and cooling technique creates a powerful prebiotic called resistant starch.”
In terms of probiotics, look to include things like kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi and natural yogurt into your daily diet. To support your beneficial bacteria, Fiona recommends getting into the habit of eating two tablespoons or drinking 200ml of these foods each day.
Once you have increased your dietary intake of prebiotics and probiotics, you might want to look into supporting your gut health further with supplements.
“Prebiotic supplements often contain a type of fibre called inulin,” says Fiona. “It’s wise to start low and gradually increase your dose of this, as it can take a little while for your gut bacteria to get used to such a concentrated form of fibre. When it comes to probiotics, look for a formulation that contains lots of different types (strains) of bacteria. You also want to make sure the capsule contains around 20 billion colony-forming units (CFUs), which is an effective dose.”
Fiona adds, “There are some supplements that combine prebiotics and probiotics. These are known as synbiotics. As with prebiotic supplements, it’s best to start with a low dose and work your way up to the label’s recommendation.”
So now you know the difference between prebiotics and probiotics. Why not show your gut some love and feed it the fuel it needs?