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What are Prebiotics?

by Adam Gould
What are Prebiotics?

A few years ago the concept of 'probiotics' was not well-known, but these days health foods and supplements that supply your gut with ‘friendly’ bacteria can be found in just about every supermarket.

But something you don’t hear about that much are prebiotics… so what are they exactly?

Probiotics, prebiotics… what’s the difference?

To better understand prebiotics, here’s a quick recap on probiotics and what they can do.

Living in your gastrointestinal tract are more than a trillion micro-organisms, including bacteria, viruses, fungi and (disturbingly) parasites, all collectively known as your gut microbiota (you’ll also hear them called gut biota, gut flora or gut microflora).

Most of these micro-organisms are beneficial for your overall wellbeing as well as having a positive impact on your digestive health, which is why they’re often described as ‘good’ or ‘friendly’ bacteria.

Some of the ways having the right balance of gut microbiota is thought to boost your health include:

  • Improved Digestion (studies indicate that several probiotic strains are highly effective in relieving digestion issues such as IBS)
  • Healthy weight (studies suggest having an imbalance of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ microbes may lead to weight gain)
  • Strong immunity (scientists understand that your gut microbiota forms a crucial part of your immune system)
  • Heart health (researchers have found significant links between gut microbiota health and levels of blood fats)
  • Diabetes risk (research shows gut microbiota may help control blood sugar and even reduce the risk of diabetes)
  • Allergies (experts think gut microbiota play an important role in the development of allergic diseases, especially in early years.)
  • Skin (studies suggest a healthy gut microbiota may be one of the keys to having good skin and can even be effective when applied topically.)

Find out more by reading Gut Health: How Your Gut Affects Every Part Of Your Body.

In a nutshell, probiotics are micro-organisms that are good for you, hence introducing more positive strains is good for your health. But if you really want to boost their levels, you need to ‘feed’ them with prebiotics.

Prebiotics aren’t bacteria, but substances found in certain foods, normally complex fibres and sugars, that we can’t digest by ourselves. These substances are fermented and broken-down by the friendly bacteria in your gut.

By providing both structure and fuel to help the good guys thrive, prebiotics boost procreation of positive bacterial strains in your gut. Anything that’s good for the balance our gut microbiota, is good for our general health.

Did you know?   Prebiotics were first identified in 1995 by Glenn Gibson – a professor at the University of Reading. Gibson co-wrote a scientific paper introducing the concept with Professor Marcel Roberfroid of the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium.


Sounds good – where can I find them?

Prebiotics are found in supplements and a range of foods. You’ve probably already eaten some today. There are several different groups of prebiotics, each of which has different types and food sources. Here are some of the main ones and where you can get them:

Prebiotic Group Main Types Food Sources
Fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) Fructans, inulin, oligofructose, oligofructans Chicory, onions, garlic, asparagus, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes, agave, bananas, wheat, barley, dandelion greens
Galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) Lactose, raffinose, stachyose, arabinogalactan, guar gum Milk, beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas, hummus
Mannan oligosaccharides (MOS) D-mannose, glucomannan Konjac, Cranberries, blueberries, peaches, broccoli, green beans.
Xylo oligosaccharides (XOS) Xylose, xylan Seaweeds, micro algae, mushrooms
Pectic oligosaccharides (POS) Pectin, citrus pectin Apples (including apple cider vinegar), oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit
Plant polyphenols Phenolic acids, flavonoids, resveratrol, tannins Fruit and vegetables, cereals, tea, coffee, dark chocolate, cacao/cocoa powder, wine, herbs and spices
Fermentable fibres Resistant starches, fibre, cellulose, beta-glucans Oat bran, sweet potato, yams, seeds (including hemp and flax seeds), cooked and cooled rice/potatoes, leafy greens, nuts, cranberries and other berries, mushrooms, coconut, broccoli, cabbage, Brussel sprouts, beetroot, pears, apples

Did you know? Mushrooms are becoming increasingly popular as health foods and supplements. It is thought many of their benefits come from high levels of undigestible polysaccharides: which are basically a compounds made up of various prebiotic fibres. 

Is there a quick-fix?

With such a variety of prebiotics to choose from, you may well be wondering if any one of them stands-out as better at feeding your gut microbiota than another.

Unfortunately, not really. Whilst there are some good allrounders such as inulin and many probiotic strains react positively to a variety of prebiotics. At the end of the day; different bacteria ferment different prebiotic compounds better than others – it’s all to do with their genes and the size and structure of the prebiotic molecules (we won’t bore you with the details).

Since there’s no single prebiotic for all your intestinal bacteria needs, as is often the case, the main takeaway in terms of nutritional advice is that it’s a good idea to get a wide variety of foods in your diet. Or if you can’t achieve this, make sure you choose well-formulated supplements to fill in the gaps.

Synbiotic Foods

A food or supplement that is a mixture of prebiotics and probiotics is referred to as ‘synbiotic’ to describe the inherent relationship that beneficially affects the host by improving the survival & activity of beneficial microorganisms in the gut.

One neat way to get both nutrients is to introduce synbiotic food combinations into your diet (Food pairings that provide a dose of probiotics and prebiotics in every bite). Here are a few to get you started:

Live yoghurt and banana smoothie: Live yoghurt for probiotics, bananas for prebiotics (Choose slightly under-ripe bananas for even more prebiotic power!).

Hummus on sourdough toast: Sourdough bread for probiotics, hummus for prebiotics.

Cheese on flaxseed crackers: Cottage cheese for probiotics, flaxseeds for prebiotics.

Miso soup: Miso - fermented soya beans - for probiotics, spring onions and tofu for prebiotics.

Greek salad: Feta cheese for probiotics, raw onions and olives for prebiotics.

Why not try and make-up your own synbiotic food combinations? For more information regarding probiotic-rich foods, see Probiotic Bio Cultures: Uses, Benefits, and Dosage.

Too much of a good thing…

One of the best things about prebiotics and probiotics is that, unlike many other nutrients, you can’t really take too many or too much. After all, your gut is already teeming with trillions of different microbial life forms, so introducing a few billion more of the good ones isn’t likely to have any long-lasting adverse effects.

For this reason, even high-strength probiotic supplements are perfectly safe for children and adolescents to take. Furthermore, there is plenty of research to suggest that a healthy gut biome is, if anything, even more important in early life and could have an influence on the development of all sorts of health conditions such as allergies, digestive issues, disease and even mental health.

However, when you start a new probiotic/prebiotic regimen – either by changing your diet or taking supplements (or both) – it’s worth bearing in mind that you may experience some short-term side effects as your gut adjusts to it's new balance, such as bloating, wind and other digestive upsets

If this is your experience, do not be concerned - this should desist after a few hours, or days at the most. In some ways it’s actually a good sign because it implies that a significant re-balancing is occurring.

However, if symptoms persist for longer than a few days then you may, understandably, want to stop eating the particular food or supplement causing the issue for a short time. You can then re-introduce it at a lower dose or quantity to build-up slowly and give your gut more time to adjust.

Did you know?   This re-balancing effect is why high fibre foods have a reputation for causing gas, and may also explain why you get tummy troubles at the start of your holiday when you’re eating foods your digestive system isn’t used to.

What does the future hold?

Modern nutritional science is still uncovering new ways in which gut microbiota is essential for health. But while there are plenty of studies on probiotics, research into prebiotics is still at any early stage.

As is the case with probiotic supplements, there’s no reason why prebiotics ingested in supplement form wouldn’t have the same benefits as increasing levels of these beneficial ingredients in your diet.

It also stands to reason that if probiotics are important for health, then prebiotics must be too, since they help probiotics work more effectively. So, in an ideal world, of course you would want to have both.

VitaBright’s formulation team have created several ground-breaking synbiotic formulations and have plans to formulate more biological supplements in the future – having seen plenty of evidence from positive reviews on our own products to confirm that they are highly effective for many people.

Follow these links to find-out-more and see customer reviews:

Advanced Bio-Cultures Complex: A 45 billion CFU high-strength blend of 17 probiotic strains alongside the versatile prebiotic inulin; for digestive issues and general wellbeing.

ACV Digestive Complex: A high-strength blend of 1000mg apple cider vinegar with several supporting ingredients. Synbiotically enhanced with L.Acidophilius and Inulin.

Enhanced Cranberry Complex: The most potent cranberry capsule currently available in the UK and a potent dose of advanced probiotics that studies show can help fight UTI’s.

by Adam Gould
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