Probiotics have long been hailed as the ultimate support for the immune and digestive systems, and there is no doubt of their ability to promote and maintain a healthy gut. However, despite their fame, a little-known truth is that probiotics would be of little effect without their less-celebrated partner: prebiotics, or prebiotic fiber to be exact. Here we’ll discuss what prebiotic fiber is, how it helps probiotics, and why you need to include it as part of your diet.
What Is Prebiotic Fiber?
Although the term “prebiotic” is fairly new (coined in 1995), prebiotics themselves are nothing new. Prebiotics are an indigestible form of fiber found in some (but not all) fruits, vegetables, and starches. They act as a food source for the friendly bacteria in the gut. It is important to note that though every prebiotic is a fiber, not every fiber is a prebiotic. To be considered "prebiotic" in nature, a fiber must meet the following criteria:
- Resists digestion and absorption in the upper gastrointestinal tract
- Is fermented by the intestinal microflora
- Selectively stimulates the growth or activity of friendly intestinal bacteria
You Can’t Have Probiotics Without Prebiotics
Prebiotics and probiotics have a symbiotic relationship. Prebiotic fiber is the main food source of probiotics, and probiotics cannot thrive without it.
When you ingest a probiotic supplement or food with prebiotic fiber, they both end up in the gut. There, probiotics can consume the fibers, enabling the beneficial bacteria to populate your gut microbiome. If a probiotic is consumed without prebiotic fiber, it’s less likely to flourish.
The Health Benefits of Prebiotics
Though the scientific understanding of prebiotics is relatively young, promising discoveries have surfaced about their health benefits. The following is just a small sampling of the findings from research into the health benefits of prebiotics.
Encourages Gut Health and ImmunityTogether, prebiotics and probiotics support digestive health.[4, 5] Prebiotic fiber is integral for a healthy, balanced gut. Not only does taking prebiotics and probiotics support the immune system, but they also reduce the risk of undesirable gut conditions.
Promotes Bone Health
Prebiotic fiber improves and facilitates absorption of minerals in the body, including bone-healthy magnesium and calcium.[5, 6] This can be particularly helpful in menopausal women.
Promotes Fat Metabolism
Prebiotics have a beneficial effect on lipid metabolism.[5, 7] That means that they help you burn fat.
Helps Control Appetite and Weight Management
Studies published in the British Journal of Medicine and the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition have shown that prebiotics can help with appetite control by increasing satiety hormones, making you feel less hungry.[8, 9]
Regulates Insulin Sensitivity
A study published in The Journal of Nutrition showed consumption of 15 to 30 grams of resistant starch (a type of prebiotic fiber) a day reduced insulin resistance in obese and overweight men.
Sharpens Brain Function
Prebiotics are considered one form of “psychobiotic” — something that positively impacts mental wellness through the gut-brain-axis. Prebiotics exert beneficial effects on gut bacteria that are good for the brain and provide positive mental health benefits.
Brightens Mental and Emotional Health
In addition to their mental health benefits, prebiotic fibers support a normal mental and emotional health and stress response.
Promotes Restful Sleep
Regular consumption of prebiotics can help boost the amount of REM and non-REM sleep, especially after a stressful event.[12, 13]
What Are the Different Types of Prebiotics?
Prebiotics exist in both food and supplement form. Common examples of prebiotic fiber you will find in supplements and food include:
- Acacia gum
- Oligosaccharides (the best-known prebiotics) including:
- Fructooligosaccharides (FOS)
- Oligofructose (OF)
- Galactooligosaccharides (GOS)
- Transgalactooligosaccharides (TOS)
- Resistant starch (RS)
- Wheat dextrin
While there’s debate over which prebiotics are the most effective, it is clear that ingesting any prebiotics with probiotics or cultured foods is beneficial.
What Is a Prebiotic Supplement?
Prehistoric hunter-gatherers ingested many prebiotic-containing foods. If you have not carried on that tradition and you don’t ingest enough prebiotic-rich foods in your diet, supplementation can fill the gaps.
Prebiotics are available as stand-alone supplements or combined with a probiotic formula to enhance its effectiveness. A supplement that contains both is called a synbiotic. Depending upon your goals, you may wish to take a combination product or a pure prebiotic. A probiotic should be taken with a prebiotic (either as a supplement or food) to be effective, but a prebiotic can provide stand-alone health benefits.
The Best Prebiotic Foods That Everyone Should Eat
Since prebiotics are relatively "new" on the health and science scene, there is some debate over which foods qualify as "prebiotic foods" and which don’t. Some health care professionals and scientists believe that any fiber-containing food could have prebiotic benefits. That may be true, but, for now, we'll focus on the currently known best prebiotic foods.[14, 15]
- Asparagus — consumed in its whole, fibrous state.
- Bananas — offer a good serving of resistant starch when consumed slightly unripe.
- Chicory root — rich in inulin and a popular choice among probiotic manufacturers, chicory root also doubles as a delicious coffee substitute.
- Garlic — excellent for supporting the immune system and gut health.
- Jerusalem artichoke — also known as "sunchokes," these potato-like tubers have a delicate flavor and are brimming with prebiotic fiber.
- Leeks — are prized for their health properties and prebiotic value.
- Onions — another immune system and gut-health champion.
- Potato starch — if you’ve ever wondered why potato starch is prevalent in natural food stores, it is partly because of its value as a resistant starch.
- Whole grain corn — only choose organic, non-GMO, sprouted corn products.
- Whole grains (preferably gluten-free) — such as oats.
It is worth noting that prebiotics are also abundant in breast milk and help babies build good gut bacteria, a benefit that likely protects infants from infections.
How Many Prebiotic Foods Should You Consume Daily?
Your natural health care professional can help you determine the best diet plan based on your current state of health and your goals. Based on my experience and the current research, I recommend consuming at least one or two prebiotic-rich foods a day to help maintain good gut health. This is in addition to a diet that’s already rich in fruits and vegetables. An easy solution is to eat soups with onions and garlic, substitute Jerusalem artichokes for potatoes, and blend bananas or resistant starch (like potato starch) into your smoothies. Don’t forget to make sure that your probiotic supplement contains prebiotic fiber.
Points to Remember
To recap, prebiotics are the primary food source for probiotics and are just as important (if not more so). Probiotics cannot flourish in your gut without prebiotics.
Prebiotic supplements may be taken as stand-alone products, or combined with a probiotic like Global Healing's Ultimate Probiotic. Global Healing's Ultimate Probiotic combines 25 different probiotics with the right amount of prebiotics to help support your gut health. No more worrying about separate supplements or adding specific foods to your diet.
- Patel, Seema, and Arun Goyal. "The Current Trends and Future Perspectives of Prebiotics Research: A Review." 3 Biotech 2.2 (2012): 115–125. PMC. Web. 22 Sept. 2017
- Slavin, Joanne. "Fiber and Prebiotics: Mechanisms and Health Benefits." Nutrients 5.4 (2013): 1417–1435. PMC. Web. 22 Sept. 2017.
- Cummings, J.H. and G.T. Macfarlane. "Gastrointestinal Effects of Prebiotics." The British Journal of Nutrition., U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 2002
- Collins, M. David, and Glenn R. Gibson. "Probiotics, Prebiotics, and Synbiotics: Approaches for Modulating the Microbial Ecology of the Gut." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 69, no.5, 1052s-1057s, May 1999.
- Roberfroid, M., et al. "Prebiotic Effects: Metabolic and Health Benefits." The British Journal of Nutrition, Aug. 2010. Suppl 2:S1-63.
- Scholz-Ahrens, K.E., Ade, P., Marten, B., Weber, P., Timm, W., Açil, Y., Glüer, C.C., Schrezenmeir, J. "Prebiotics, Probiotics, and Synbiotics Affect Mineral Absorption, Bone Mineral Content, and Bone Structure." The Journal of Nutrition. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2007. Web. 22 Sept. 2017.
- Gibson, G.R., and M.B. Roberfroid. "Dietary Modulation of the Human Colonic Microbiota: Introducing the Concept of Prebiotics." The Journal of Nutrition. U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 1995. Web. 22 Sept. 2017.
- Hume, Megan P., and and Alissa C. Nicolucci. "Prebiotic supplementation improves appetite control in children with overweight and obesity: a randomized controlled trial." The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, DOI: 10.3945/ajcn.116.140947.
- Parnell, J.A., and R.A. Reimer. "Prebiotic Fibres Dose-Dependently Increase Satiety Hormones and Alter Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes in Lean and Obese JCR:LA-Cp Rats." The British Journal of Nutrition., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Feb. 2012.
- Maki, Kevin C., et al. "Resistant Starch from High-Amylose Maize Increases Insulin Sensitivity in Overweight and Obese Men." The Journal of Nutrition, February 22, 2012, doi: 10.3945/jn.111.152975.
- Sarkar, Amar, et al. "Psychobiotics and the Manipulation of Bacteria–Gut–Brain Signals." Trends in Neurosciences, Elsevier Applied Science Publishing, Nov. 2016.
- Thompson, Robert S., et al. "Dietary Prebiotics and Bioactive Milk Fractions Improve NREM Sleep, Enhance REM Sleep Rebound and Attenuate the Stress-Induced Decrease in Diurnal Temperature and Gut Microbial Alpha Diversity." Frontiers, Frontiers, 9 Dec. 2016.
- Leach, J.D., and K.D. Sobolik. "High Dietary Intake of Prebiotic Inulin-Type Fructans in the Prehistoric Chihuahuan Desert." The British Journal of Nutrition., U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2010.
- "Prebiotics and Probiotics: Creating a Healthier You.” www.eatright.org, Academy of Dietetics and Nutrition, 10 Oct. 2016.
- Scott, Karen. "Prebiotics." International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP).
†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.