get in my belly: pre and probiotics

If we’re talking about physical health, we cannot forget our gut instinct, and that requires pre and probiotics.

Our digestive health is the center of all other bodily functions. Not only are we dependent upon digesting the food we eat, but our gut is also deeply connected with our mental health, immune system and more. When the gut is out of whack, so is the rest of our body.

Your GI tract is lined with a protective mucosal barrier, where any food-based antigens, pathogens, and toxins you swallow are recognized and managed. Before birth and continuing throughout life, your immune system “talks” with microbes, distinguishing between beneficial flora and pathogens. Beneficial flora can help stem the kinds of overactive immune responses that can lead to allergic reactions. The food you eat, and its pH balance, glycemic load, fiber, and essential fatty acid content all affect the flora in your gut.

Since the immune system is the one dealing with pathogens, the bad bacteria, it also plays a major role in the GI tract. Much of the immune system’s activity in the intestines is mediated by a component of the lymphatic system known as gut-associated lymphoid tissue, or GALT. As the largest lymphoid organ in the body, GALT corrals foreign invaders for inspection so the immune cells can better recognize potentially harmful organisms and substances. When the immune system faces many pathogens, it’s natural response is inflammation, leading to bodily turmoil.

That’s why it’s beyond crucial to prioritize our digestion. This includes the basics of eating nutritious, whole foods, and it especially should involve pre and probiotics. We see the trends for drinking bone broth and eating kimchi, but what should we know about healthy gut bacteria?

What we usually focus on are probiotics. Throughout our bodies, we are chock full of bacteria, preferably the kind we need to keep ourselves functioning. Probiotics are those bacteria and yeasts our digestive system especially craves. Researchers are still learning more about all the benefits probiotics provide, we know that consuming them on a regular basis helps balance the “good” and “bad” bacteria that can lead to digestive problems and, in turn, problems throughout the body.

We assume that by adding probiotics to our diets, we’re just targeting any digestive troubles like irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, constipation, and more. However, like I mentioned, people take probiotics for other concerns, too. Urinary health, skin health, oral health, and immunity are all improved when consuming probiotics.

There’s actually different probiotics to keep an eye out for. There are two main categories, each toting their own uses, and some might work better for you than others. Lactobacillus is the most common probiotic usually found in yogurt and other fermented foods. Different strains can help with diarrhea and may help with people who can’t digest lactose. Bifidobacterium is also in some dairy products and may help ease the symptoms of IBS and some other conditions.

There are supplements available for taking probiotics, but I personally have found more success when incorporating foods with the good bacteria. While I’ve mentioned dairy, like yogurt and kefir, as go-to sources, if you’re vegan and/or avoid dairy, no need to fret! I’m a huge fan of kombucha tea, sauerkraut, miso, kimchi, tempeh, and even pickles are all fermented foods with probiotics.

Probiotics are the bacteria that get all the credit for digestive health, but there are also prebiotics to consider. We’ve discussed how probiotics are live microorganisms that live inside your gastrointestinal tract. They aid in digestion by essentially cleaning out the gut so that things keep flowing. Like all living things, probiotics need to be fed in order to remain active and healthy and to benefit you as much as possible. Prebiotics act as food for probiotics. To keep the bacteria we add and maintain in our body, it needs proper fuel.

Without realizing it, you’re probably already eating some prebiotics. They are un-digestible plant fibers that already live inside the large intestine. Prebiotics naturally exists in many foods that are high in fiber. The top prebiotic foods include onions, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, dandelion greens, asparagus, chicory root, and bananas.

An important note to keep in mind for prebiotics is whether to eat them raw or cooked. As with most foods, the composition of prebiotic fiber foods changes when they are cooked. It’s not known exactly how much prebiotic fiber is lost when these foods are cooked, but it’s safe to assume the less they are heated, the more they will retain that healthy prebiotic fiber. However, I’m not about to chomp down on raw onions and garlic anytime soon.

The typical person needs about 5 grams of prebiotics each day. As with probiotics, there are supplements available to help you get those in, but again, if you can get those fibers in your food directly, the better off you’ll be.

As with anything, balance is key. We shouldn’t be focused entirely on pre or probiotics separately, but see them as a supportive system just like the rest of our body metabolizing food into energy. With so many people struggling with their digestive, myself included, and simultaneously dealing with the repercussions in their gut and beyond (congestion, acne, joint inflammation, mental fog…you name it), our increased interest in digestive wellness is a great place to start. We become accustomed to having digestive problems, we don’t realize things can be improved.

But yes, we can find a healthier version of ourselves. Gut health won’t make all our problems dissipate, but it will certainly help us absorb nutrients and have a solid foundation for facing the world, whatever it may bring.

Mindful meditation: Almighty Lord, our bodies are so complex and unique, constantly working to keep ourselves alive and well. Help us to make the best choices in supporting those functions and treating the body as the temple You created it to be. Amen.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

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