What Are Prebiotics & What Do They Do?
A Look At The Benefits Of Eating Prebiotics
Prebiotics are quickly becoming some of the most popular and exciting dietary supplements on the market.
There has been an explosion in interest in gut health over the past few years. As people become more educated about health, longevity and performance optimization they are naturally going to become increasingly interested in their digestive health. As interest grows, so does the hunger for quality supplements.
There are now hundreds of probiotic supplements on sale, and prebiotics are not far behind. New prebiotic supplements are hitting the shelves every single week, and the number of food products advertised for their prebiotic properties is rocketing.
But few people actually understand what prebiotics are, let alone how they work, or how they affect health. Even fewer people understand how prebiotics affect physical and mental performance.
This prebiotic guide is going to change that!
So what are prebiotics?
What do they do?
How are they different to probiotics?
What are the benefits? How can they help you?
Are they safe? Are there any side effects?
We’re going to answer all of these questions and more. If you get to the end of the article and you still have questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. You can leave a comment at the bottom of this page or send us an email.
Before we explain what prebiotics are, it is a good idea to explain what probiotics are and how they work. The two are intimately linked, although they are completely different things.
What Are Probiotics? – How Are They Different To Prebiotics?
Probiotics are live bacteria cultures that help keep the gut healthy.
Your digestive system is home to an incredible amount of bacteria. At any given time, there are between 300 and 1000 different species of bacteria in the human digestive tract, with an overall population of about 100 trillion individual cells.
The most recent estimates say there are about 3 times as many bacterial cells in the human body than there are human cells (earlier estimates put the ratio as high as 10:1).
These bacteria carry out a range of vital bodily functions, from metabolizing certain nutrients and synthesising key vitamins to controlling the immune system.
A growing body of research is also drawing a link between the gut microbiome and a wide range of health issues. It seems that everything from depression to heart disease may be directly influenced by your gut microbiota. While this research goes one, one thing is certain: the function of your gut bacteria, and the exact role played by individual strains, is extremely complicated.
Probiotics are bacteria strains that help your gut do its job properly. They are typically strains of bacteria thought to be most important for a healthy digestive system. It is thought that supplementing with certain probiotics – or by consuming them through fermented foods – will help keep your gut microbiome strong, functional, and in good working order.
Not all bacteria are ‘probiotic’, obviously. To be considered a probiotic, a strain must promote good digestive health and aid the gut in doing its many jobs.
That’s probiotics out of the way.
So what are prebiotics then?
What Are Prebiotics?
Prebiotics are non-digestible foods which feed the probiotic bacteria in your intestine. They are the parts of food that aren’t digested in the human stomach or small intestine. Instead, they pass through the digestive system relatively intact until they reach the colon, where micro-organisms partially break them down. This ‘breaking down’ process is more akin to fermentation than digestion.
Prebiotics are all fibrous, although not all fibre is prebiotic; some fibrous foods do not make great food for your gut microbes. So while a diet high in fibre is definitely good for your digestive health (putting it mildly), some fibrous foods are better for your gut microbiome than others.
Certain foods will help keep your ‘good’ gut bacteria healthy, while others are useless to them. But a select few allow them to absolutely thrive. These select foods are what we refer to as prebiotics. They are not the only substances which feed your gut microbes, but they are far and away their preferred food source.
That said, your gut bacteria are able to feed on pretty much all dietary fibre to some degree. A diet high in fibre will ensure that you have regular bowel movements. On top of that, soluble fibre brings lots of water into the colon. All of these things make for a healthy, properly functioning gut microbiome.
What Are The Benefits Of Consuming Prebiotics?
Consuming more prebiotics is known to alter the make-up of your gut microbiota, making it more balance, more robust, and more conducive to good overall health. More specifically, top prebiotic supplements selectively feed the ‘good’ bacteria in your gut, while doing nothing for the ‘bad’ bacteria lurking there as well. This means the ‘good’ bacteria can grow and multiply, while the ‘bad’ bacteria is left hungry.
Because prebiotics selectively feed different strains of ‘good’ bacteria in your gut, they can help improve various aspects of health and performance. Some of the key benefits highlighted by clinical trials include:
- Better digestive health
- More regular bowel movements
- Prevents gut infections
- Reduces inflammation
- Reduces incidence of IBS
- Minimizes diarrhea
- Maximizes digestion and nutrient uptake
- Enhances mineral absorption
- Enhances immune system function
There is also a fascinating and exciting body of research which suggests that the gut microbiota may have an effect on wide ranging illnesses, conditions, and bodily functions.
Early research indicates that improving gut bacteria health and composition can have some profound consequences, including:
- Reducing the risk of developing cardiovascular disease
- Reducing the risk of developing certain mental illnesses
- Enhancing mood
- Enhancing multiple aspects of cognitive function
More research is needed in all of these cases, but preliminary clinical trials have been extremely promising.
Sources Of Prebiotics
There are two ways to consume more prebiotics: eating more foods containing prebiotic fibers, or taking prebiotic supplements.
Which tactic is best for you depends entirely on your own specific circumstances.
In terms of effectiveness, there is no clear evidence that either source is preferable. Some prebiotic supplements have specially-treated, purified, or concentrated prebiotic fibers which can have a more powerful effect on gut microbiota composition than a high-fiber meal.
But a diet generally rich in fibers, and particularly prebiotic fibers, will always be the best way to promote good health, both physical and mental.
It is actually quite easy to get plenty of prebiotics from your diet if you plan it correctly. Here are some of the foods highest in prebiotic fibres:
- Chicory root
- Whole oats
- Wheat Bran
Incorporating some of these foods into your regular diet will keep your gut microbiota nourished and healthy for life.
There’s no need to go overboard and start piling artichokes on top of every meal.
Just try to eat a good portion of one or two of these foods at least a few times per week, and then build upwards from there.
Ideally you would eat at least one meal containing lots of prebiotic fibres every single day. But for most people that is simply unrealistic. Most of us have very hectic work schedules, which means we can’t always plan our meals in advance. Eating on the go or at a restaurant often means eating foods very low in fibre, let alone prebiotic fibre.
If that sounds like you, don’t worry – all is not lost!
As with all things, some is better than none.
You can do your gut bacteria a massive favour by eating prebiotic fibres once or twice a week, and then aim to eat more fibre throughout the day from any sources you can. While not all fibres are as selectively fermented by your gut bacteria, all fibre helps with digestive health!
Even this small change can have a dramatic impact on your digestive health, which in turn can have a profound impact on your mental and physical performance.
But what if you aren’t looking to do the bare minimum?
What if you’re looking to take things a step further?
What if you’re not content with being healthy – what if you want to optimize your gut health to enhance your mental performance, your physical health, and promote longevity?
If that’s the case, then it might be worth considering prebiotic supplements.
It is very difficult for most of us to eat enough prebiotic fibre to really give our gut bacteria what it needs to thrive.
The ideal human diet – at least as far as gut microbes are concerned – is absolutely full of fibre; many times more than most people consume today. We evolved from fruit eating apes, and our gut bacteria evolved to thrive on that diet.
But the modern diet contains a fraction of the fibre we used to eat, and most of us would find it very hard to change that.
For optimal health, it is recommended that we eat upwards of 5g of prebiotic fibres every day. That would translate to about 30 bananas!
If it sounds impossible, that’s because it practically is; at least for most of us.
That amount of fibre would cause serious stomach bloating, not to mention an extremely large number of calories.
That’s where prebiotic supplements come in!
Prebiotic supplements deliver a highly concentrated dose of specially selected prebiotic fibres. They will typically provide a very large dose of one particular type of prebiotic fibre – a single capsule, for example, might provide the same amount of a certain prebiotic fibre as 20 bananas!
Here are some of the most common prebiotic fibres utilized by supplements today:
Remember that not all fibres are prebiotic!
Prebiotics are those food constituents that are most preferred by your gut bacteria. Or to put that another way, they are the food constituents that are most readily fermented by your gut bacteria.
Some supplements will claim to be prebiotics, but they will in fact just provide common plant fibres that aren’t readily fermented by your gut bacteria.
Learning to recognize which foods are prebiotic and which are not will help you tell good value supplements from bad.
Do Prebiotics Cause Side Effects?
Prebiotics are naturally-occurring in the human diet (the ideal human diet, anyway).
As such, they are not thought to cause any side effects if consumed in reasonable quantities.
If you start eating a diet rich in prebiotic fibres, then you’ll probably experience some bloating. You might initially find yourself having irregular bowel movements. You will almost certainly find yourself feeling unusually full after large meals.
This will certainly happen if you switch from a low fibre diet to a high one. But after a while, say a couple of weeks, your gut bacteria should re-calibrate and any side effects should subside.
Any changes to your diet should be made gradually. Drastic change is rarely conducive to good health…unless of course you’re cutting out alcohol or tobacco!
Prebiotic supplements are not known to cause serious side effects.
Users seem to rarely report any side effects whatsoever. When they do, they either arise form excessive use or the use of poor quality supplements.
Even the enriched prebiotics aren’t thought to cause any side effects whatsoever. They are altered forms of fibre, but they aren’t synthetic; they are simply compounds you can still find naturally in food.
For a very small number of people, a high-fibre diet is completely unsuitable. Obviously, if you have some kind of digestive or intestinal condition which means a high fibre diet is harmful to health, it goes without saying that a diet high in prebiotic fibres is off the table. A diet high in prebiotic fibre is almost high in total fibre. You should talk to your doctor before you even think about trying prebiotic supplements.
If you do experience any side effects whatsoever while using prebiotic supplements, cease use immediately and seek medical attention. Please also share your experience in the comments section below; this will help other readers make sound purchasing decisions!
It is absolutely vital that you understand the following facts while reading this page: We are a group of individuals who have collectively done voluminous research on this topic and who have personal experience using prebiotic supplements. That is all. We cannot possibly provide individual advice; we don’t know you, your needs, or your medical history. All we can do is speak generally, and draw conclusions from our research and personal experiences. You must do your own research before buying any supplements. It is absolutely CRUCIAL that you seek proper medical advice before making any major changes to your diet, or before you use any new supplements.
It is absolutely vital that you understand the following facts while reading this page:
We are a group of individuals who have collectively done voluminous research on this topic and who have personal experience using prebiotic supplements. That is all. We cannot possibly provide individual advice; we don’t know you, your needs, or your medical history. All we can do is speak generally, and draw conclusions from our research and personal experiences.
You must do your own research before buying any supplements.
It is absolutely CRUCIAL that you seek proper medical advice before making any major changes to your diet, or before you use any new supplements.
Prebiotics vs Probiotics – Which Is Right For You?
Pro and prebiotics are two very different but closely related things.
Prebiotics are essentially a probiotic’s food.
Which one you decide to try to add to your diet very much depends on what it is that you want to achieve.
If for some reason you want to add a particular strain of bacteria to your gut microbiome, then a probiotic is the most direct way to do that.
However, if you aren’t consuming enough prebiotics to feed that bacteria, then the effects of the probiotic are only going to last so long.
If you don’t consume enough prebiotic fibre to keep your probiotic gut bacteria alive, then probiotic supplements are pointless.
For most people then, we think prebiotics should be the first port of call; the step you need to get down before you start spending good money on probiotic supplements, or before you start eating copious amounts of yogurt!
Prebiotics can actually bring about all of the same benefits as a probiotic if given enough time.
A diet rich in prebiotics will nourish your naturally-occurring gut bacteria, allowing it to rebalance and proliferate as nature intended.
After all, prebiotics are those foods that selectively feed good gut bacteria. They therefore help to promote a gut microbiome heavily tilted towards good, healthy gut bacteria.
In a way, prebiotics are the best possible probiotic.
Probiotics, on the other hand, deliver a particular strain of gut bacteria. These cells are then left to fend for themselves in an environment they may not be suited to.
We think prebiotics are a better option for the vast majority of you.
Only if you already have a prebiotic-rich diet and a particular bacteria strain in mind should you opt for probiotics.
Here are some of the most common questions we get asked about prebiotics. If you have any questions, please let us know in the comments and we’ll get back to you right away!
What are prebiotics?
Prebiotics are the fibres that selectively nourish helpful gut bacteria. They are fibres which are readily fermented by ‘good’ bacteria in the gut. All prebiotics are fibres, but not all fibres are prebiotics. To be classed as a prebiotic, the fibre must selectively nourish ‘good’ gut bacteria, not ‘bad’ bacteria.
Which foods contain the most prebiotic fibre?
Some of the best sources of prebiotic fiber include: asparagus, leeks, onions, garlic, bananas, and chicory root. While not all fibers are prebiotic fibers, eating more fiber generally will definitely help create a more healthy digestive system, and it will promote a well-balaned gut microbiome.
Are prebiotic supplements safe?
Generally speaking, prebiotic supplements are very safe. They rarely cause side effects. Eating more fibre on a daily basis might cause some temporary bloating, but this problem usually subsides. That said, this is not medical advice, and everybody is different. Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns.
What are the most common side effects of prebiotic supplements?
Prebiotoic supplements very rarely cause side effects. However, making changes to your gut bacteria, however gently you do it, can have some adverse effects. These are usually short-term, but they can be quite uncomfortable. They include: bloating, constipation, gas, diarrhea, and nausea. If these side effects are particularly pronounced, or if they persist for more than 2 days, you definitely need to seek urgent medical attention. If you experience any side effects whatsoever you should tell your regular family doctor right away, regardless of what supplements you’re using.
Can prebiotics enhance cognitive function?
More research needs to be done in this area, but early evidence suggests that improving the health of your gut microbiota can have a dramatic impact on your cognitive performance. Having a healthy, properly functioning gut microbiome could positively affect mood, focus, memory, and energy levels. Check out our article on the gut-brain axis for more on this.
Are Prebiotics Worth Paying For?
Many of you might be wondering why anyone would pay for prebiotics when they can be easily procured from the diet. Well, not everybody is in a position where they can easily get an optimal amount of prebiotic fibers from their diet. After all, for optimum gut bacteria health, you need to be eating AN AWFUL lot of prebiotic fiber, and that invariably means eating a lot of fiber period. For most of us, it is just more realistic (and easier on the gut) if we use supplements.
It can also be hard to tell which foods provide the right kind of fiber for your needs. While all fibrous foods benefit gut health, prebiotic fibers are those that feed specific strains of ‘good’ gut bacteria. Only certain foods contain those fibers, and they aren’t always the kind of foods you’d like to eat.
How Much Should Prebiotics Cost?
It’s difficult to put an extract limit on how much you should be paying for prebiotics. That depends entirely on your budget and what you value as a customer. As a general rule though, we don’t think you should be paying more than $45, or about £35, for a month’s supply. Above this price, prebiotics become less economical and you get diminishing bang for your buck.
You can normally get good deals by buying a subscription or a multi-box bundle.
How Do You Use Prebiotics?
You should use prebiotics like every other supplement – by following the instructions on the label! Generally speaking though, supplements are taken in a single daily serving with or shortly before eating. They aren’t meant to be double-dosed or taken intensely for a short period of time. Always follow the instructions on the label to the letter, and start with the smallest possible serving before gradually moving to a larger dose (if applicable).
Can You Mix Prebiotics With Alcohol?
Alcohol is not good for your gut bacteria, or anything else for that matter. If you’re really serious about promoting a healthy gut, then drinking alcohol probably isn’t a good idea. However, there is no reason to avoid alcohol entirely while using prebiotic supplements. There is no evidence that prebiotics interact badly with alcohol in any meaningful way…when both are consumed in moderation of course!
My Diet Contains Little Fiber; Can I Use Prebiotics?
Prebiotics were actually designed primarily for people whose diets are particularly low in fiber. After all, if you’re already eating lots of fiber, then chances are, you don’t need to worry about your gut microbiome! You should have some fibrous foods in your day-to-day diet to ensure good overall health. If you struggle to eat enough greens or root vegetables, then a prebiotic supplement is probably a good idea.
Should I Use A Prebiotic or Probiotic?
Prebiotics and probiotics have the same end-goal; to create a more balanced, healthy, effective gut microbiome. However, they go about this in very different ways. Whether you need a pre or a probiotic is entirely dependent on what your goals are and what your current diet looks like.
If you want to encourage the growth of a particular strain of bacteria, or to rectify a specific digestive problem, then probiotics are probably a better idea. But if you want to promote a generally healthier gut, better all-round digestive health and enhanced long-term performance, prebiotics are the way to go.
Luke is our Editor in Chief. He is the main driving force behind NaturalNootropic.com, and he creates most of our most important content. He is extremely passionate about enhancing human cognition; he has experimented with many different nootropic substances over the years, sometimes with negative results. He wants to help people get more out of performance-enhancing supplements, and he is fascinated by recent advances in longevity research. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.