Understanding the Basics of Prebiotic Fiber, Dietary Fiber, and Probiotics and Their Health Benefits
Understanding the Differences Between Prebiotic Fiber, Dietary Fiber, and Probiotics, and Their Role in Our General Health and Well-being.
An increasing body of evidence suggests that the health status of our gut microbiome has a profound impact on the health and well-being of nearly every system in our body.
Imbalances of the normal composition and lower diversity of the gut microbiota have been shown to play a role in a wide range of human diseases. Including obesity, autism, metabolic disease, mood disorders, cardiovascular problems, and more. (1, 2)
Fortunately, researchers suggest that we can directly cooperate with the maintenance of an adequate and healthy intestinal flora/microbiota through a nutrient-dense type of diet. Diverse in prebiotics, dietary fibers, and fermented foods or probiotics.
Numerous studies shown that a diet rich in nutrients, prebiotic fibers, dietary fiber, and fermented foods is crucial in maintaining a favorable gut environment. (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)
Then, in the next few articles, I will cover the differences between prebiotic fiber, dietary fiber, and probiotics. Their roles in our health. How to make food choices to support, protect, and assist our gut microbiome and our overall health. And more.
What is the gut microbiome?
Gut microbiota is the collection of trillions of microorganisms including bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa, and other organisms found within our gastrointestinal tract, mostly in the large intestine. With essential capabilities for the fermentation of non-digestible substances such as dietary fibers.
Our intestinal flora or gut microbiota plays a very important role in our health and well-being by helping control digestion, benefiting our immune system, metabolic, nutritional, and physiological processes in our body. (9, 10)
Factors that influence our gut flora/microbiome composition
In addition to our diet, there are a few other factors that can change the composition of our gut microbiota.
- Use of medication or drugs, including alcohol
- Tobacco use
- Stress level
- Level of physical activity
- Interaction with nature
- Sleep quality, diet, etc.
However, our diet is the key modifiable factor that can quickly induce a shift in the composition of our gut microbiota. (11, 12, 13)
How does the gut microbiome affect the immune system?
Numerous studies have shown that between 70-90 percent (depending on the scientist) of our immune system is located in the gut.
In reality, our microbiome and our immune system are entangled and the immune cells in our gut completely interact with our microbiome. The gut and the immune system support one another to promote a healthy body, and both are directly influenced by our diet and lifestyle.
So, the foods we eat and the way we live our lives directly affect the composition and the diversity of the bacteria in our gut, and also, our immune cells.
Then, the health status of our microbiome has a direct impact on our overall health and well-being.
As result, the development of all modern chronic diseases is directly associated with an imbalanced or dysbiotic intestinal microbiome/flora. Including health problems such as gastrointestinal disorders such as IBD (intestinal bowel disease), IBS (intestinal bowel syndrome), metabolic disorder, allergies, asthma, eczema, weight gain, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, etc. (14, 15, 16, 17)
Without any question, in order to keep our health in good shape we must follow a diet packed with precious prebiotic compounds to feed and support the trillions of microorganisms that live in our intestinal flora/microbiota to thrive.
Feeding our gut flora/microbiome
Our paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors got their food by hunting, gathering, and fishing. Basically, they ate a nutrient-dense type of diet, abundant in fresh foods, rich in dietary fiber, and prebiotic fiber. Also, fermented foods or probiotics-rich foods. Since food fermentation has been around for thousands of years.
Then, if we compare the nutritional qualities of the real, nourishing, and high-quality foods our ancestors ate with the nutritional qualities of our modern diets, we observe a major shift.
In other words, our eating habits respected for millions of years are rapidly and drastically being replaced by highly processed, refined, and inflammatory foods. By foods dense in calories and poor in nutrients. Packed with antibiotics, hormones and toxins. Improper for human consumption.
Also, more we move away from our traditional diet, more difficult will be for us to fulfill our nutritious demands. Consequently, nutrient deficiency may have devastating consequences on our general health.
According to scientists, this nutritional discrepancy is one of the leading causes for the pandemic of chronic diseases that we see all around us.
Numerous studies show that a diet diverse in prebiotic fiber, dietary fiber and fermented foods is crucial in maintaining a strong and healthy gut flora/microbiota.
Essentially, as we were genetically encoded eating a nutrient-dense and diverse type of diet, we can directly assist the health of our gut flora/microbiota by properly feeding the trillions of microorganisms that are living there.
So, we must respect the premises of our ancestors’ diet and eat a nutrient-dense diet, rich and diverse in dietary fiber, prebiotic fiber and fermented/probiotic foods. (18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23)
What is prebiotic fiber?
The concept of a prebiotic was first defined in 1995 by Gilson and Robenfroid, and says, “prebiotics are non digestible food ingredients that beneficially affect the host by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of one or a limited number of bacterial species already resident in the colon, and consequently attempt to improve host health.”
However, over time, their definition has continued to evolve and in 2016 a new definition presented by the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) says, “prebiotics are food substrates that are selectively utilized by the host microorganisms conferring many health benefits”.
In simple words, the term prebiotic refers to non-digestible compounds found within complex carbohydrates or anything* in our food that induces the growth or activity of beneficial microorganisms that live in our gut microbiota promoting many benefits in our health and well-being.
*Recent research has shown that prebiotics may also derive from non-fiber substances such as polyphenols. Naturally occurring compounds in plants that act as prebiotic in the digestive system, promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria. (24, 25, 26)
How does prebiotics help the digestive system?
The bacterial fermentation that takes place in the colon of the intestine of undigested food substances such as fibers, specifically resistant starch fibers, but also, of many isolated undigested food properties such as polyphenols, increases the acidity of the colonic contents serves as fuel/food for beneficial bacteria.
Over time, if we keep this internal ecosystem well-fed and happy with a diet rich in prebiotic/undigested food components, it will create an optimal gut environment, more hospitable to beneficial species of bacteria and less hospitable to the pathogenic ones. (27, 28)
Prebiotic and the production of short chain fatty acids
In reality, the fermentation of prebiotic substances acts like fertilizers that supports the growth of beneficial microbes in our gut microbiota. Promoting the production of powerful substances known as short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) such as acetate, propionate, butyrate, etc.
SCFAs play an important role in the maintenance of gut and immune homeostasis. Given their vast effects anti-inflammatory, antitumorigenic, and antimicrobial effects.
Short-chain fatty acids are known to influence the integrity of the gastrointestinal epithelial cells, in the maintenance of the gut homeostasis, energy balance and metabolic health, cardiovascular health, appetite/weigh control, in the absorption of minerals, immune function, in bone health, and more. (29, 30, 31, 32)
Incredible, isn’t it?
Prebiotics benefits go far beyond our gut
As we could see, prebiotic substances help stimulate the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, creating an environment where the microorganisms can thrive.
Consequently, prebiotics substances have the potential to improve digestive function through a number of local effects, ranging from the maintenance of the integrity of the intestinal gut barrier, mucus production, and protection against inflammation, reducing the risk of colorectal cancer, and more.
However, as we saw above, the effects of prebiotic substances in our diet go far beyond the limits of our gut. (33, 34)
Increasing prebiotic consumption
Fortunately, we can easily find substances that act as prebiotics in many whole plant foods such as vegetables, roots, fruits, grains, nuts, etc. Or in the form of dietary supplements.
However, it is important to keep in mind that foods rich in prebiotic substances and also in fiber in general, may exacerbate pre-existing intestinal symptoms.
So, if you already have digestive symptoms such as bloating, abdominal pain, gas, diarrhea, loose stools, constipation, SIBO (small intestine bacteria overgrown), etc., before you implement changes in your diet please, look for professional guidance.
It is extremely important to find and solve the root cause of your digestive distress in order to treat your gut symptoms to help you better tolerate these fibrous foods.
Overall, if you have good intestinal health you can gradually implement the foods listed below in your daily diet. (35, 36)
How do we get prebiotics in our diet? Through foods or supplements?
Without any question, a diet abundant and diverse in fresh foods packed in fibers and prebiotic substances is a delicious and intelligent way to regulate our gut microbiota composition, with beneficial effects on many aspects of our health.
Then, as our ancestors did, we should focus in getting our vital nutrients through our diet, avoiding as much as possible the use of supplements.
However, in the case of prebiotics, the situation is a little bit different, and the most important thing for us is to guarantee that we are getting enough prebiotics in our daily diet.
That said, we can get our prebiotics from both plant foods rich in these substances and/or high-quality prebiotic supplements. (37, 38, 39, 40)
Common substances that act as prebiotic
- Fructans – consisting of inulin and fructo-oligosaccharide - FOS
- Galacto-Oligossacharides - GOS
- Non-Carbohydrate Oligosaccharides - NCO
- Other Oligosaccharides
- Resistant starch fiber
Foods rich in prebiotic substances
- Raw honey – contain carbohydrate molecules called oligosaccharides with prebiotic properties that stimulate the growth of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium
- Apple cider vinegar – contain phenolic substances such as gallic acid and chlorogenic acid, which promote the increase in Lactobacillus casei
- Coffee – contain phenolic acids and polyphenols with high prebiotic activity, stimulating the increase in Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium
- Black/green teas – contain polyphenols such as catechins, including epicatechin, epigallocatechin, epicatechin-3-gallate, and epigallocatechin-3-gallate. Flavanols, such as quercetin, kaempferol, myricetin, and glycosides, among other components that can interact with the intestinal microbiota.
- Wine red/rose – contain polyphenols that stimulate the increase in Enterococcus, Prevotella, Bacteroides, Bifidobacterium, and more
- Dark chocolate/cocoa powder – contain polyphenols associated with the increase of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium
- Among many others
In the next articles, you will find a few lists containing foods with varying amounts and forms of prebiotic substances plus, a list covering the best prebiotic supplements on the market. Besides, I will keep talking about the differences between prebiotics, dietary fiber, and probiotics. Their roles in our health. And much more.
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6- studies shown that a diet rich in nutrients, prebiotic fibers, dietary fiber, and fermented foods is crucial in maintaining a favorable gut environment