What Are Probiotics and How Do They Help Digestion?

The thought of bacteria in our bodies can be unnerving, mainly because we associate this with germs and illnesses that can cause us headaches — both literally and figuratively. 

But, what about good bacteria? 

Yes, there is such a thing. They live in our gut and help with our overall health. Chew on this for a minute — 100 trillion microorganisms (made up of more than 500 different species) live in our bowels, according to Harvard Health. Many of these microorganisms serve a purpose, aiding in proper digestion, nutrient absorption, and immune health. 

Back in the 1990s, research and various studies found ways probiotic therapy could help with gastrointestinal health. As the general public learned more about gut health, terms like probiotics and prebiotics became more mainstream. We’ll explain what they are, the health benefits associated with them, and how you can incorporate them into your daily routine.

Probiotics vs. Prebiotics

Because there’s only one letter difference, it may be easy to use probiotics and prebiotics interchangeably. However, it’s important to know how they differ. 

Probiotics are microorganisms that deliver health benefits via the digestive system. You'll find a variety of probiotics in your intestines, including two types of bacteria, lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, and a yeast, saccharomyces boulardii. They are found in many naturally-occurring foods and available in supplement form. 

Conversely, prebiotics are dietary fibers that help feed the good bacteria in our bodies. Think of prebiotics as food for probiotics.

Why You Need Probiotics

Why are probiotics important? Your gut flora, made up of hundreds of microorganisms, help manufacture vitamins and turn fibers into certain fats you need for metabolic functions. 

Probiotics assist the good bacteria in your gut. Your levels of good bacteria can decrease when taking antibiotics, so the addition of probiotics to your diet, either through foods or supplements, can help replace the lost bacteria. Additionally, probiotics can help your body digest food and produce vitamins. 

Probiotics can also help treat inflammatory digestive tract conditions, like ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, and general constipation, acid reflux, and irritable bowel syndrome. 

Lactobacillus, found in yogurt, is the most common probiotic and can help fend off diarrhea. You can find bifidobacterium in many fermented foods and cured meats. It’s beneficial for combatting irritable bowel syndrome. Saccharomyces boulardii, like lactobacillus, can help with diarrhea.

Why You Need Prebiotics

Prebiotics, a type of carbohydrate our bodies can’t digest, work in tandem with probiotics. They act as fertilizers to help boost the immune system by decreasing the amount of harmful bacteria. They can also help absorb calcium, help with weight loss by making you feel fuller, and allow food to spend less time in your digestive tract. 

You can find prebiotics in many high-fiber foods. Fructo-oligosaccharides and galacto-oligosaccharides are the two important groups of prebiotics.

Incorporating Probiotics and Prebiotics in Your Diet

As the idea of gut health has gained more traction in popular culture, you can choose from certain types of foods to improve your health. 

Yogurt is among the most popular due to its live cultures, but it isn’t the only way to add probiotics or prebiotics to your daily routine. Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and miso, along with acidic items like pickles and buttermilk, can aid in your digestive health. Even kombucha and certain types of cheeses (gouda, mozzarella, cheddar, or cottage) are sources of probiotics. 

As for prebiotics, you can turn to vegetables (artichokes, asparagus, cabbage, onions, and tomatoes), fruits (bananas, berries, grapefruit, and watermelon), grains (whole wheat, rye, barley, oats), and certain legumes (chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans, soybeans). 

In general, a diet high in fiber is beneficial, as many of your typical high-fiber foods contain prebiotics. Consider modifying your daily routine to include whole grains (choose whole wheat pasta and breads), green vegetables, and nuts high in fiber like almonds or pistachios. 

Some foods, like yogurt, bread, and cereal, have prebiotics added. Check the packaging for words like galactooligosaccharides, fructooligosaccharides, oligofructose, chicory fiber, or inulin. 

Studies recommend including five grams of prebiotics in your diet. However, incorporating too many probiotics or prebiotics into your diet can lead to gas or bloating.

Talk to Your Doctor Before Changing Your Lifestyle

We recommend consulting your physician if you’re interested in adding probiotics or prebiotics to your diet, especially if you’re considering boosting your intake with supplements. 

Probiotics and prebiotics are generally considered safe since they occur naturally. There are many different types, so it helps to know which probiotics are helpful for certain ailments. 

You should still be cognizant of certain things, like adverse reactions for anyone with a weak immune system. For example, if you receive treatment for chemotherapy or recently had surgery, you could be at risk for an infection when increasing your consumption of probiotics. 

Any additional risks are minimal beyond that. Mild side effects can occur and you may be allergic to probiotics or prebiotics. You could develop an upset stomach, flatulence, or bloating during the first few days if your body isn’t familiar with processing foods high in fiber. You should start slowly with your intake and work your way up over the course of several days or a week. 

It’s important to remember probiotic supplements aren't subject to the same stringent testing and approvals like drugs are. You should check with your doctor before taking any supplements to ensure they are right for you. 

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