Understanding Probiotics & Prebiotics: How To Use Them For Your Health

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Understanding Probiotics & Prebiotics: How To Use Them For Your Health

How much thought have you given your digestive system lately? Millions of tiny microbes make your gut their home, and they provide you with numerous benefits in the process. From better digestion to more efficient nutrient extraction, gut bacteria are critical for keeping your entire system running smoothly.

While it’s easy to ignore your meals after they land in your stomach, you’re sure to notice if your digestive system stops working as it should. For this reason, understanding how to optimize your use of prebiotics and probiotics is well worth the effort.

Healthy Gut, Healthy Life

Just like any ecosystem, your digestive system contains a vast array of micro-organisms that all interact with each other and with their environment. Certain digestive bacteria help regulate your immune and inflammatory responses, while others break down food particles into nutrient components your body can better absorb. Beneficial gut bacteria also help your body produce vitamins and regulate your mood.

Some research links high prebiotic and probiotic levels to better mental health, less anxiety and depression, and lower levels of the common stress hormone cortisol. There is also evidence that healthy probiotic levels might even lower bad (LDL) cholesterol levels.

Likewise, a healthy blend of prebiotics and probiotics in your system can also keep your colon in top shape by helping it stay populated with healthy bacteria that improve mineral absorption and aid in hormone production. These same bacteria can also reduce your risk of developing colon disorders like irritable bowel syndrome and leaky gut syndrome.

Without these bacteria, your health will be severely compromised. Unfortunately, that’s an all-too-common reality for millions of people today.

The Perils of Modern Diets for Digestion

Modern day conveniences might make life easier, but today’s diets and hygiene standards are spelling doom to many people’s digestive bacteria. Eating processed foods, living a high-stress lifestyle, spending too much time indoors, and taking antibiotics or other prescription medications can all compromise gut bacteria populations.

These disturbances in your microflora can lead to overgrowths of yeast, leaky gut syndrome, an inflamed colon, and a host of other symptoms like headaches, insomnia, brain fog and inexplicable fatigue.

There seems to be a direct correlation between modern living and gut health. A study in Science Advances found that the highest microbiome diversity on record was present in a hunter-gatherer tribe in Africa with little contact with the industrialized world. In contrast, people from the United States has some of the lowest gut diversity on record.

How can you control the state of your digestive system to restore it to pre-industrial health levels? Understanding the benefits of probiotics and prebiotics is the right place to start.

About Probiotics

Probiotics are living microbes (usually bacteria and yeast) that thrive in your digestive tract. Well over 1,000 forms of bacteria call your gut home, and certain strands have specific benefits for your health.

These bacteria work to improve digestive functioning and control for pathogens. Just the presence of beneficial bacteria like lactobacilli and bifidobacteria is often enough to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, though everyone’s body responds differently to certain bacterial strains.

The use and appreciation of probiotics continues to increase. In the United States, they are the third most commonly requested dietary supplement. 2012 data showed that about 4 million adults and 300,000 children had used probiotics in the past month.

Regularly taking probiotic supplements or eating microbe-rich foods may help your body:

  • Stabilize the digestive tract to inhibit the growth of undesirable microorganisms.
  • Maintain a robust community of desirable microorganisms
  • Restore gut health after illness or antibiotic use
  • Stimulate positive immune response

It’s often best to begin taking probiotics immediately after an antibiotic treatment. An intensive antibiotic regime will kill off entire strains of bacteria and leave a vacuum. This can make it easier for yeasts and potentially pathogenic bacteria to take over. Taking probiotics immediately after will help beneficial bacterial strains gain a foothold and outcompete less desirable varieties over time.

You can easily take probiotics in supplement form or through microbially-rich foods like fermented vegetables, yogurt, kombucha, soft cheeses, sourdough bread, and other non-pasteurized fermented foods.

About Prebiotics

While probiotics get much of the credit for good gut health today, prebiotics play an equally vital role in the process. Prebiotics are fermentable plant fibers that aren’t digestible by the human body. Rather, they are a nourishing food source for existing gut bacteria to help keep their populations high.

These forms of fiber essentially act as fertilizer in your gut to promote optimal conditions for probiotics in your stomach. They aren’t that useful for your body on their own, but prebiotics are essential for helping your body’s probiotics repopulate your digestive system.

It’s easy to think that the modern diet is full of prebiotics, but the truth is that most high carb-foods are composed of simple sugars that are digested quickly.

Prebiotics can come from foods like onions, leeks, beans, oatmeal, garlic, dandelion leaves, and chicory root. Other natural sources include fibrous fruits and vegetables. Most of their fiber is contained within the peel, so eat the skin as often as you can to boost your levels.

Tips For Taking Prebiotics & Probiotics

How can you provide your body with the best forms of probiotics and prebiotics? Supplements can work, but a well-rounded diet is often the best approach.

It’s entirely possible to consume prebiotics and probiotics at the same time. In fact, they are often present in the same foods. Because they rarely go through your digestive system at the same time, there’s little reason to carefully monitor when and how much you eat, so long as both varieties are a frequent addition to your diet.

How to Buy the Best Probiotic Supplements

In some cases, your needs for beneficial gut bacteria will be better served through supplements than your diet. If you’ve gone through a round of antibiotics or have issues with your immune system, food alone might not manage to replenish your bacterial levels.

But, with thousands of different probiotic varieties available today, how can you know which ones make sense for you? Below are some basic guidelines to direct your decision.

  • Number of Strains: Different types of bacteria colonize different areas of your digestive system, so you get the best coverage by taking in a wide variety of strains, mostly in the Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and Streptococcus families. The human body contains well over 500 strains of bacteria though, so you won’t go amiss by sourcing probiotics with as many varieties as possible so that they can support your body in different ways.
  • Density of Bacteria: The potency of probiotics are generally classified by their CFUs, or Colony Forming Units. The number you need to look for depends on your personal needs. If you’re looking to take a probiotic for general maintenance of your digestive system, between 20-25 billion CFUs daily is more than adequate. For those who have just come off antibiotics or who are treating a chronic yeast infection like Candida, between 100-500 billion CFUs per day is often best.
  • Delivery Method: The form you take your supplement in matters. Veggie capsules are designed to withstand your stomach acid better so that bacterial strands remain unscathed, but the way they are formulated can pull moisture from the inside of the supplement, causing the bacteria to die off before you take it. A better solution? Make sure you invest in probiotics that are less than twelve months old for the best results.
  • Shelf Stability: There’s a reason that most probiotics are sold in the refrigerated section- the supplements contain living (and fragile) substances. Unfortunately, temperature fluctuations during shipping will affect the number of bacteria alive in the product when it winds up in your hands. Reduce this variable by committing to a shelf-stable formula that can handle temperature changes without dying off.


Do Probiotics Dissolve in Stomach Acid?

Some researchers are skeptical that taking probiotic supplements will make much difference in your health. They state that the stomach acid-filled environment of the digestive system can destroy these microbes before they can make much difference for your health.

The good news? Research shows that certain bacterial strains like Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria can survive your gut conditions, even without the protection provided by an enteric capsulated pill. By this reasoning, much of the bacteria you take in through fermented food will also make it into your system.

Final Tips For Taking Probiotics & Prebiotics

Keeping your digestive system healthy isn’t as complicated as it seems. By following these suggestions, you’ll be setting your system up for success with better internal bacteria.

  • Take probiotics on an empty stomach and split larger doses into a morning and evening dose.
  • It’s normal to experience gassiness and bloating during your first days of probiotic use, but the symptoms typically disappear after a few days.
  • If you take antibiotics, make sure to wait two hours after each dose before taking probiotics so that it remains effective.
  • Probiotics with Bacciluus coagulans, such as this one from Thorne Research, are best for travel because they don’t need to be refrigerated.

Read Next: Why You Should Test Your Gut Bacteria At Home & How To Do It

About the Author


Lydia Noyes is a natural living enthusiast and full-time writer. She earned a bachelor's degree in Environmental Studies from Calvin College, which serves as inspiration for writing about food, farming, and holistic wellness for both humans and the planet. Lydia's work can be found in print in Mother Earth News, Mother Earth Living, and Heirloom Gardener, as well as dozens of websites.

When not writing, you can find Lydia maintaining her 33-acre hobby farm 'First Roots Farm' in southwest Michigan. Connect with Lydia online at www.firstrootsfarm.com.

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