Gut Check: Probiotics and Prebiotics

Incorporating probiotics and prebiotics in your diet could be the key to better health.

Are you one of the millions of people who suffer from symptoms of poor digestive health? It’s estimated that 60 to 70 million Americans experience gastrointestinal issues, according to the National Institutes of Health. 

These problems range from bloating and gas to more serious conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and ulcerative colitis. But whether you experience occasional or chronic issues, there are things you can do to alleviate symptoms and make your gut healthier.

Bacteria: Good vs. Bad

Your gut is home to about 50 trillion bacteria made up of around 1,000 different species. While you might think of bacteria as something you need to get rid of, certain bacteria are beneficial and play a major role in your overall health. 

“Bacteria is usually thought of as negative or something that makes you sick,” says Cheryl Gallio, RD, LD, a Registered Dietitian at Carson Tahoe Health. “However, you constantly have good and bad bacteria in your body.” 

Increasing the number of good bacteria in your body can improve your digestive health. This is where probiotics come into play. 

“Probiotics are a combination of live beneficial bacteria and/or yeasts that naturally live in your body,” Gallio says. “The main job of probiotics is to maintain a healthy balance in your body. When you are sick, bad bacteria throw your body out of balance. Good bacteria found in probiotics work to fight off the bad bacteria and restore the balance within your body.”

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Probiotics aid in digestion by supporting the cells in your gut and improving your body’s ability to absorb vitamins and break down the food you eat. They also help your immune system function better and control inflammation, which is a big cause of digestive problems. Studies have shown that eating foods containing probiotics or taking a daily supplement can help treat many gastrointestinal conditions:

  • IBS
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Ulcers

And that’s not all. Research also suggests that the friendly bacteria in probiotics can help treat vaginal infections, bladder cancer, urinary tract infections, and eczema in children. However, because there are many different species of good bacteria, more research needs to be done to determine which types of probiotics are best for certain conditions and symptoms.

What are Prebiotics? 

Prebiotics are a type of dietary fiber that act as food for healthy bacteria, helping it to thrive in your gastrointestinal tract. Including prebiotics in your diet has many health benefits:

  • Improved intestinal function
  • Better immune response
  • Reduced risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes 

Recent studies have also found that both prebiotics and probiotics can have a positive effect on cholesterol, reducing serum total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides, while increasing HDL (good) cholesterol.

Supplementing Your Diet

Eating foods with plenty of prebiotics and probiotics is important to your gut health. It can also help you lose weight, as these foods can make you feel full faster and improve overall digestive function. Both prebiotics and probiotics are also available as supplements. 

“Supplements can be beneficial for people who are unable to tolerate specific foods that provide prebiotics and probiotics, such as people who are lactose intolerant,” Gallio says. “But it’s also important to remember that these supplements are not regulated by the FDA.” 

When choosing a prebiotic supplement, look for one that contains inulin or oligofructose. For probiotics, most contain Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. But there are many different species and strains that affect your body in different ways. Talking with your healthcare provider can help you determine which supplement might be the best fit for you.

More Gut-Healthy Tips

In addition to consuming plenty of foods that benefit the healthy bacteria in your gut, Gallio has several tips for keeping your gut happy:

  • Exercise regularly.
  • Chew food thoroughly to aid in digestion.
  • Drink at least 64 ounces of water every day to avoid constipation.
  • Find ways to manage stress, as increased stress can slow down digestion.
  • Eat a diet low in saturated fat and processed foods to reduce inflammation in your body.
  • Consume 25 to 30 grams of fiber every day. 

“Consider the gut as an ecosystem that can be managed,” says Gallio. “The benefits of a healthy gut ecosystem extend to various body systems. What happens in your gut directly affects your health.”
To learn about nutritional counseling at Carson Tahoe, visit www.carsontahoe.com/nutritionalfacts.