We carry trillions of bacteria in our bodies. Many are essential to our well-being and health, producing nutrients that help regulate anything from our digestive systems to our immune health and even influencing our moods, weight and nervous systems. Beneficial bacteria make up part of our microbiota or microflora. However, these symbiotic microorganisms can become overwhelmed by harmful bacteria or depleted or unbalanced due to our diets, medications, and other environmental influences.
We want healthy and useful bacteria, not those that will make us sick or compromise our health in other ways. That’s where probiotics and prebiotics come in. What’s the difference and why does it matter so much for your health?
What are Probiotics?
Probiotics are simply live bacteria and yeasts that are good for us. We usually think of bacteria or yeasts as germs that cause diseases. But our bodies are full of bacteria, both good and bad. Probiotics are often called “good” or “helpful” bacteria because they help keep us healthy.
We are all born with beneficial bacteria that furnishes us with an inoculation against infection and helps with our overall immune health, among other helpful tasks like regulating digestion, weight and sleep. Over time our microbiome can change, become compromised, unbalanced or just alter from its original composition from a number of causes:
Antibiotics. When we take antibiotics, we often damage our entire microbiome rather than target key bacteria making us sick. After all, few antibiotics differentiate between friendly and destructive bacteria. This is one way our microbiome can become compromised, unbalanced and unhealthy. Studies have shown that antibiotics can cause permanent changes in certain types of bacteria, especially when taken during childhood and adolescence. Because antibiotic use is so widespread, researchers are now studying how this may cause health problems in people later in life.
Diet. Another way our microbiome becomes unbalanced or compromised is through the foods and drink we consume. For instance, salt and sugar are preservatives, known for their antibacterial properties. In our Western diet, we consume an inordinate amount of both thanks to our reliance on processed foods for the majority of our calories and that unbalances our microbial health.
Environmental influences. Our environments can harm or alter our microbiome. Poor air quality, exposure to harmful chemicals, and pollutants are just some of the typical means.
Recovering Beneficial Bacteria Via Probiotics
Probiotics generally mean living beneficial bacteria. In general conversation though probiotics usually refers to supplements and certain foods known for containing live bacterial cultures. Doctors often suggest them to help with digestive problems but they do more for us than just help us with digestion. After taking antibiotics or in order to revamp our microbiota, we might be proscribed probiotics or take our own initiative to repopulate lost beneficial bacteria. We might do this by eating probiotic foods that contain live beneficial bacteria like yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, or sauerkraut or via probiotic supplements in pill or powder forms.
However, in foods where live cultures are added, such as with yogurt, kefir, and supplements, manufacturers often only focus on a handful of live bacteria and rarely more than a dozen species. While even a dozen might be helpful, this manufacturing practice loses sight of the fact that our gut biomes and larger microbiomes are made of literally hundreds if not thousands of different species of beneficial bacteria. Eating yogurt which contains one or two strains only does so much. Kefir and other fermented foods with perhaps a handful more, also can’t hope to restore or re-balance our microflora by themselves.
That is not to knock these foods. Kimchi, sauerkraut and others are fantastically healthy. But they are only part of the picture.
Interestingly, produce from our personal gardens or raised on local farms also contain beneficial bacteria from the soil it was grown in. These are important for gut and immune health but can do so much more for our overall health. We won’t find the same live bacteria in non-local foods which are irradiated and sanitized for safe shipping and long shelf lives. See my article 7 Very Real Health Reasons to Buy Local.
That’s what makes prebiotics so important, arguably more so than buying a handful of fermented food products and hoping to fix our health and an unbalanced or compromised microbiome.
Probiotics vs Prebiotics
So if probiotics are live beneficial bacteria and yeasts, what are prebiotics?
Prebiotics are foods that feed the beneficial bacteria and yeasts we carry. Bacteria are live organisms and they need food to live and proliferate.
We want a balanced microbiota. Some bacteria that are helpful in small colonies become destructive in larger amounts. What we eat, and therefore what our microbiome eats, will impact our bacterial colonies and their proportions. The trick is maximizing the beneficial bacteria. Luckily our species has been doing this naturally for most of its existence. At least until recently. With the rise of the “modern” diet – highly processed and high in sugar, refined carbs and bad dietary fats – we’ve been not just making ourselves sick but our microbiome as well.
If we want a healthy microbiome, we can best start by feeding the colonies of good bacteria in our bodies and withholding nutrition from the harmful bacteria not doing us any favors. The food we eat plays an important role in the balance of good and bad gut bacteria. For example, a high-sugar, high salt and high-fat diet influences the gut bacteria negatively, allowing harmful species to flourish at the expense of good species. Once you regularly feed the wrong bacteria, they are able to grow faster and colonize more easily. They can crowd out helpful bacteria which will decrease if not given the food they need to survive and thrive.
Conversely, when we feed the good bacteria, we can help them thrive and keep harmful bacteria in check. What’s the best food for our beneficial bacteria? Turns out they really love dietary fiber and a whole foods diet.
Recovering Beneficial Bacteria via Prebiotics
As mentioned before, one way to improve our microflora and help restore lost health is to consume probiotics like those found in yogurt, kimchi, supplements, etc. However, variety is a problem as most of these commercially available probiotics only provide a handful of the literally hundreds or thousands of those species which contribute to our health.
The best way to balance our microflora? Eating a whole foods diet. Our beneficial bacteria love dietary fiber. Come to find out, the same whole foods diet that’s so good for us is just as good for them. When they are fed this preferred food, they flourish and crowd out harmful bacteria and re-balance our microflora naturally. Eating whole foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds comes packed with amounts of dietary fiber and nutrients our beneficial bacteria love. Processed foods lack dietary fiber and nutrition and instead wreck our gut biomes as well as our broader health.
You could say that the Western diet has the patent on how to best damage our microbiomes. The answer to most of our health problems, including our compromised microflora, is a whole foods diet.
A whole foods diet is a balanced way of eating that doesn’t require supplements, powders or pills. We and our microflora just need real food, with dietary fiber being the key. We need more than a random serving of fruit, beans or legumes. We actually require quite a lot for health and so do our microflora. Read my article Why an Apple a Day (or that Fiber Supplement) Won’t Keep the Doctor Away – Fiber Study Ups the Ante on a Whole Foods Diet.
Most whole foods contain the dietary fiber our microbiome loves. Want the most bang for your buck? Eat beans. They come packed with more dietary fiber than most other foods and contain high levels of vitamins and minerals. They’re also the one food linked to longevity across race, class, age, or gender. Maybe their high fiber load is why. That fiber feeds our beneficial bacteria, allowing the production of necessary nutrients to aid with our digestion, immune health, metabolism, and even our nervous system, among others.
Aside from eating for health via a whole foods diet, we can also help our microbiome by consuming foods high in inulin, like garlic, onions and leeks. This feeds the beneficial bacteria while conversely repressing unhealthy bacteria with their anti-fungal properties.
Food for Health
Our bodies are complex ecosystems that live in symbiosis with trillions of bacteria, many of which actively help sustain our health. When they go out of whack, so do we. The consumption of probiotics, aka live beneficial bacteria, can help restore or re-balance our gut biome but only to an extent. That’s why prebiotics, or food to feed these beneficial bacteria, is so important.
It is impossible to buy a pill or powder that will perfectly replenish a compromised or unbalanced microbiome but we can strengthen weak populations and colonies through the foods we eat that contain the fiber and nutrients they love and need to thrive. The best foods for this are whole foods, something our species naturally ate until the processed food revolution began causing so much global health havoc.
Want to reclaim your health and experience better digestion, a stronger immune system, better sleep and a well-functioning metabolism and nervous system? Switch your diet and your microbiome’s diet to the live regenerative whole foods way of eating.
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