What are Prebiotics?
Prebiotics are typically non-digestible fiber compounds that pass through the first portion of our digestive tract intact (around 90%) into the large intestine, where they are fermented by our own gut microbes.
They consist of complex carbohydrates, primarily in the form of oligosaccharides, which are short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). SCFAs are fatty acids, compounds of carboxylic acid with a long aliphatic chain, with two to six carbon atoms.
Unlike probiotics, which are ingestible forms of microbes, prebiotics don't contain live microorganisms. Instead, they're food for those microbes to eat!
Without a healthy balance of pro- and prebiotics in our diets, it's very hard to maintain healthy gut flora, which support our health and general wellbeing. Current research suggest as little as 5-8g of prebiotic fiber a day can make a positive impact to the microbial mix.
Where Do Prebiotics Come From?
Prebiotics are made by plants and broken down in our bodies through digestion after we eat those plants. Refined prebiotic extracts can also be included as an added ingredient in a range of foods.
Why Are Prebiotics Beneficial?
As the fiber travels through our digestive system, this promotes the beneficial dispersal of microbes through our guts but also boosts the concentration of beneficial microbes that use the prebiotics as a source of food.
These complex carbohydrates provide a useful source of energy (around 2 calories / gram) for certain beneficial microbes in the gut, especially anaerobic lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, as well as a physical structure to colonize.
Side Effects of Prebiotics
Prebiotics are overwhelmingly beneficial for our digestion, gut health and beyond.
By encouraging certain kinds of good bacteria and microbes to colonize our digestive tract, they can help support general good health and may suppress pathogens and putrefying bacteria, reducing the risk of colon cancer.
However since prebiotics encourage natural fermentation to occur inside our guts, ingesting excessive quantities of prebiotics can lead to bloating or abdominal cramps from the release of carbon dioxide and other gaseous by-products of the fermentation process.
Some people may be naturally more sensitive to these side-effects, which can also be aggravated by certain medical conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
Ironically however, prebiotics may help manage these conditions by encouraging water absorption and regulating sodium in our intestinal lining, which has been shown to help inflammatory conditions including Crohn's.
Heating prebiotics, such as cooking prebiotic-rich foods, may help to break down some of the compounds and make them easier to digest. This is the same principle behind what makes raw versus cooked food easier to digest.
Prebiotics are also found in different concentrations in different foods, so trying a range can help determine what's right for you.
Sources of Prebiotics
Prebiotics are oligosacharrides, two of the most common forms of which are raffinose (three monosaccharide units) and stachyose (five monosaccharide units). This kind of found in beans and other legumes.
Another category, called fructo-oligosaccharides, consist of fructans. These kinds of fiber compounds are found in particular rich concentrations in jerusalem artichokes, onions, garlic and bananas. Grains such as unrefined breakfast cereals and whole grains are also good sources.
We hope you enjoyed learning about prebiotics!
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