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You’ve Heard of Probiotics. But What Are Prebiotics?

20 years ago, the idea of eating more bacteria might have felt counterintuitive. Today, every fit, young influencer includes kefir and several other organic ingredients you can’t pronounce in their “what I eat every morning” video.

As you watch the video (and warm your pop tarts), you hear a word you don’t recognize – “prebiotics.” To answer a few common questions surrounding pre- and probiotics, we spoke with Jennifer Oikarinen, a registered dietitian at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix.

What are probiotics?

“Probiotics are live microorganisms we ingest which live in the gut and thrive as good bacteria,” said Oikarinen. “They help to promote a healthy gastrointestinal (GI) tract in several ways, such as enhancing GI function, improving digestion, ramping up metabolism, as well as other important benefits.”

Probiotics help eliminate or decrease common gastrointestinal symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, gas, reflux, and even nausea/vomiting. They may also relieve irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Examples of foods rich in probiotics include:

  • Yogurt that contains Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains
  • Buttermilk
  • Kefir
  • Sauerkraut
  • Fermented pickles
  • Kimchi
  • Miso
  • Tempeh

What are prebiotics?

Put simply, prebiotics are what probiotics need to survive in your gut. Oikarinen explained that “prebiotics boost gastrointestinal health and enhance nutrient absorption of the foods we eat by nourishing the good bacteria.”

Eating probiotics without a prebiotic-rich diet would be like throwing plant seeds on the sidewalk. Properly managing the microorganisms in your gut will lead to an effective digestive system and better comfort and nutrition for you. Healthy gut flora can’t grow without both pre- and probiotics. Foods that are rich in prebiotics include legumes, fruits and whole grains. Here are a few examples:

  • Quinoa
  • Garlic
  • Bananas
  • Berries
  • Onions
  • Asparagus
  • Barley
  • Oats

Maintaining a healthy balance

If a healthy balance of pre- and probiotics is not maintained “intestinal dysbiosis, an imbalance of good and bad bacteria, can occur,” said Oikarinen. “With a decrease in friendly bacteria, bad bacteria such as yeasts and fungi, are allowed to flourish and can negatively impact your overall health, metabolism, and digestion.”

Your digestive system is delicately balanced, and while everyone’s balance is unique, it isn’t difficult to achieve. “You don't need to purchase expensive supplements,” Oikarinen said. “Eating the recommended foods can provide an abundance of quality pre- and probiotics. But be aware, bacteria releases toxins, so you may feel worse before you start to feel better. Be patient!”

Oikarinen recommended that healthy adults get 1-2 servings of probiotic-rich foods and 2-3 servings of prebiotic-rich foods per day. She added that individuals dealing with IBS or IBD may require higher amounts but recommended that they speak with their dietitian to make a plan.

Schedule a visit with a Banner Health dietitian today to begin building a plan. Visit bannerhealth.com to get started.

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