You've Heard Of Probiotics — Here's What You Need To Know About Prebiotics

Photographed by Ruby Yeh.
When probiotics first blew up as a health and wellness trend, many people couldn't get past the idea that bacteria can be a good thing for your body. Now, most of us understand that there's thousands of different microbes in our gut that are super beneficial for our health. But if probiotics grossed you out, brace yourself for an equally strange-yet-healthy phenomenon: prebiotics, aka the "fertilizer" of the gut.
Prebiotics are compounds that can't be digested, but essentially provide food for the "good bacteria" in your gut, according to International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP), an academic research association that focuses on the human microbiomes and gut health. Consuming prebiotics helps increase the amount of positive bacteria in your gut, which we know is associated with a number of health benefits, such as calming digestive issues, helping the body absorb calcium, and even managing anxiety and depression.

What are examples of prebiotic foods?

Given that preobiotics are naturally found in plant fibers, lots of sources of dietary fiber are also rich in prebiotics. Some specific examples of foods that contain prebiotics include onions, chicory, garlic, asparagus, bananas, soybeans, leeks, dandelion greens, and artichokes, according to the ISAPP. Or you might find packaged foods such as cereal, yogurt, and bread, that come with prebiotics added. And interestingly, breast milk has a ton of prebiotics that are responsible for colonizing bacteria in a newborn's gut. That doesn't mean you need to go chugging breast milk to get prebiotics, though: the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests just eating more fruits and vegetables is a great way to get them.

Are prebiotic supplements necessary?

That totally depends on your health needs, and it's wise to talk to your doctor or healthcare provider before you start taking any type of supplement. In general, you can get a higher concentration of prebiotics and probiotics from a supplement versus foods — but food typically tastes way better than supplements. Another thing to keep in mind is that the acid in your stomach can kill bacteria in supplements before it makes it to your intestines, Vanessa Rissetto, MS, RD, CDN told Refinery29. Deciphering a prebiotic supplement's label is tough, because the names of the actual compounds are a mile long. The keywords to look out for on a supplement label are: "galactooligosaccharides," "fructooligosaccharides," "oligofructose," "chicory fiber," or "inulin," according to the ISAPP.

Do you have to take prebiotics with probiotics?

In a 2015 study, researchers noted that "synbiotics," prebiotics combined with probiotics, can help the probiotic bacteria survive the trip through the stomach into the upper gastrointestinal tract. While that's promising, the research on the effects of taking prebiotics and probiotics together is still somewhat lacking, according to the ISAPP.

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