The term prebiotics is a relatively new term relating to the topic of gut health. The concept first came on the scene in 1995 when beneficial food ingredients that pass undigested through the stomach and intestines were first identified.
Researchers were shocked to learn that these undigested foods actually served as nourishment for the probiotics in the gut, those beneficial microbes that perform useful biological functions and are a critical component of a healthy immune system.
According to Dhekhar K. Chalia MD, author of Probiotics for Dummies, the important properties of prebiotics, found only in plants, are threefold:
- Healthy bacteria building potential
- Starch and sugar replacement capabilities
- Improving gut health as fiber
Prebiotics Encourage Building Up of Healthy Bacteria
In essence, prebiotics are a type of dietary fiber that encourages the growth of favorable intestinal flora. They do this by acting as a functional food for these organisms.
It is important to note that prebiotics are not alive like probiotics are. Prebiotics are a functional food, whereas probiotics are living organisms.
By nourishing these helpful microbes known as probiotics, a prebiotic effect occurs where there is an increase in the activity of healthy bacterial colonies such as bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. This strengthens the gut environment and provides resistance to invading pathogens thereby shoring up the immune system.
The great news is that prebiotics are heat resistant, and so, to a large extent, remain unaltered during the cooking or baking process. It also ensures that they will reach the intestines unaffected by the digestive process in order to trigger the beneficial prebiotic effect.
The top ten foods that contain prebiotics are as follows. Remember that cooking generally does not diminish the prebiotic effect. In fact, researchers report that cooking onions actually slightly increases the prebiotic value of this functional food.
- Chicory root
- Jerusalem artichoke
- Dandelion greens
- Wheat bran
- Wheat Flour
Prebiotics Show Promise for Blood Sugar and Weight Control
A specific type of prebiotic known as resistant starch is showing much promise far and beyond gut health benefits.
Not only is it turned into energy-boosting, inflammation squashing short-chain fatty acids by probiotic bacteria, but resistant starch is also proving helpful for stabilizing blood glucose levels, increasing insulin sensitivity, reducing appetite by increasing satiation, and encouraging weight loss that is easier to maintain.
Be wary as all forms of resistant starch are not the same, however! Note that some resistant starch is industrialized and should be avoided, the types you want are types 1-3 below.
- Type 1 – This type of resistant starch is bound by fibrous cell walls and therefore resists digestion, such as beans/ legumes, grains, and seeds.
- Type 2 – Indigestible due to its high amylase content when in its raw form, such as found in potatoes, plantains, and green bananas. Heating or over-ripening these foods renders a portion of the resistant starch to no longer be indigestible.
- Type 3 – This type of resistant starch is the result of a process called retrogradation- when starches are cooked and then immediately cooled, which allows the digestible starch in some foods like rice, potatoes, and beans to be more resistant to digestion.
- Type 4 – Industrialized resistant starch that does not occur in nature. It is man-made via a chemical process and should be avoided.
Resistant starch can be obtained either through food or supplements. Most common sources include:
- Retrograded potatoes (cooked and then cooled)
- Green bananas (unripe)
- Legumes (cooked and cooled)
- Parboiled (partially cooked) rice
- Some grains such as teff (gluten-free) and wheat.
- Potato starch (healthier than potato flour)
- Plantain flour
- Green banana flour
- Cassava powder and tapioca starch
If the potential of using resistant starch as a prebiotic for blood sugar and weight control is appealing to you, be aware that it needs to be added slowly to your diet until your body becomes used to it. Otherwise, you may end up experiencing painful and embarrassing episodes of gas and bloating!
Also be aware that if you are already grappling with gut imbalance issues or suffer from IBS, colitis, Crohn’s disease or other GI illnesses or infections, resistant starch should really be avoided until you are at least in partial remission. You can try experimenting with low amounts of resistant starch to see how it goes, but be aware that it may add to the problem rather than help the situation until you are further along in your healing journey.
Prebiotics Present in Breast Milk
Breastfeeding is known to benefit a baby’s developing immune system, so it’s no surprise that prebiotics have been identified via research to be present in human breastmilk.
Specifically, the prebiotics known as oligosaccharides (HMOs) are highly abundant in and unique to human breastmilk.
HMOs are anti-adhesive antimicrobials that prevent pathogen attachment to infant mucosal surfaces (ear, nose, throat, gut, etc) and lower the risk for viral, bacterial, and protozoan parasite infections.
HMOs may even make your baby smarter as they provide the infant with sialic acid which shows potential as an essential nutrient for brain development and cognition!
How Much Prebiotics Should Be Consumed Each Day?
There is currently no broad consensus on an ideal amount of prebiotics to include in the diet on a daily basis either via food or supplements. Recommendations range from 4 g/.14 oz up to 8 g/.28 oz for general digestive health support. Therefore, if your gut is in good shape, try a little bit at a time and increase slowly to observe how it works for you.
Those with digestive disorders may require much more (up to 15 g/.53 oz per day) to support the growth and development of healthy flora, but it would be wise to consult with a holistic healthcare practitioner on the best type of prebiotics to incorporate without exacerbating your particular medical condition.
Another good idea is to check to see that the probiotic you take has some prebiotics in there to nourish the microflora once it reaches your gut. Note that this is not completely necessary if you are eating prebiotic foods already.
The probiotic brands I have vetted and personally recommend are:
- Trenev Trio
- Pure Encapsulations
- Bio-Kult (this is the one I primarily use)
- Terra Flora
- Prescript Assist
- Just Thrive
The Best Resistant Starch
Why Fermented Foods are Not Enough to Heal the Gut (and the probiotic boost they need)
Gluten Free Teff a Powerhouse of Nutrition
Choosing the Best Probiotic and Prebiotic Supplement
How to Take Probiotics for Maximum Benefit