Oh yes, it’s time for another chat about digestion and gut health!
I’m always fascinated and super excited to watch the trends that come and go in the wellness world. If you happened to catch the predictions of Well+Good and Mind Body Green that were released last month, you probably noticed that gut health is still very much on the radar. Science is constantly teaching us new things about the links between the gut and other aspects of our health – some obvious, and some you might think were completely unrelated.
Whether you like to geek out on the science or not, I think we can all agree that when our digestion is working well, life is just feels better! Of course, there are tons of things that influence digestion, from what we eat to the quality of sleep and our stress levels. Probiotics and prebiotics have gained a lot of popularity as supplements that can help, but I think there’s a bit of confusion as to the difference between them. If you’re not totally clear on why each are important, this post is one you’ll want to bookmark.
What does gut bacteria do?
There are more than 1 trillion bacteria found in the gut1, and they do a whole bunch of different jobs that keep us healthy. From providing nutrition to cells along the digestive tract and reducing inflammation, to protecting the immune system and lowering our risk for disease, these little guys are super important!
Prebiotics vs probiotics: what’s the difference?
In a nutshell:
Prebiotics are a type of fiber that your body can’t digest, which feeds the good bacteria in the digestive system. Prebiotic fiber survives past the enzymes and acid in our stomachs, and reaches the colon where the gut microflora gobble it up and ferment it. Nom nom nom.
Probiotics are live bacteria found in some foods and supplements. Some of the most common species are lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, and within each species, there are strains that have different functions. Probiotics keep the bad bacteria in the gut under control, help our bodies get more of the nutrients from the foods we eat, reduce inflammation, support the immune system and lower risk of disease.
What role does diet play in gut health?
Our food influences the number and types of bacteria grow in our gut. If you’re constantly eating sugar and processed foods, or foods that are contaminated with pesticides and herbicides, it’s far more likely that the bad bacteria will grow. Over time, that can mean candida and yeast overgrowth, and if you’ve ever dealt with either, you’ll know they’re not fun!
Antibiotics can also throw things off balance because if you’ve taken them several times in the past, there’s a good chance that a lot of the good bacteria were wiped out with the bad guys.
The great news: Switching up your diet to replace sugary and processed foods with whole foods is a super effective way to ensure you’re growing plenty of good bacteria while keeping the bad guys away.
Where to find more prebiotics
Don’t worry- you don’t have to buy another supplement because you can get plenty of prebiotic fiber through foods! Here’s a few of the best sources:
- beans + legumes
- chicory root
- dandelion greens
- jerusalem artichokes
- wheat germ + wheat berries (if you tolerate gluten)
- whole grain and sprouted grain bread
Note that the cooked versions of some of these foods (such as onions) have less prebiotic fiber, but if it comes to cooked or not at all, go for cooked!
Where to find more probiotics
The process of fermentation creates probiotics, so it’ll come as no surprise that many of the foods in the list below are fermented. If you’re not already as crazy in love with fermented foods as I am, my best advice is to be patient and experiment. The tangy taste can take a little getting used to, but once you do, I think you’ll be hooked!
- apple cider vinegar (unpasteurized – look for the cloudy bit at the bottom of the bottle)
- fermented and non-pasteurized pickled vegetables
- kefir (dairy and non-dairy types, including coconut kefir)
- kimchi (you’ll find one of my DIY kimchi recipes here.)
- kombucha (recipe here)
- raw unpasteurized cheese
- sourdough bread
- tempeh (this is made from fermented soybeans, and I personally enjoy it much more than tofu)
- yogurt with live cultures (if you can tolerate dairy) – ideally plain + unsweetened
Note that if you’re trying to eat more fermented foods for their probiotic benefit, you’ll want to ensure that you’re buying the non-pasteurized versions as pasteurization kills off the good bacteria.
What this could look like on your plate
You can get lots of prebiotic fibre and probiotics, and combining the two together can make them even more effective. Here’s a few ideas:
- Make a comforting soup with miso, garlic and onions in the broth, and add your choice of beans for extra protein. Here’s a miso soup recipe to riff on.
- If you’re more of the stew type, you can also get your chickpeas, lentils and a bunch of the prebiotic benefits of garlic and onions in this Vegan Chickpea, Lentil and Kale Stew.
- Kimchi and sauerkraut on everything! Put some cabbage and other veggies from the prebiotic-rich list into a batch of kimchi or kraut, then let it ferment for a week or two. Voila – pre and probiotics in one recipe! You can use it as a topper for sandwiches on whole grain bread, or on Soft Boiled Egg Savoury Oats.
- Stir some yogurt into a bowl of oatmeal for a more creamy consistency.
- Blend up a smoothie with bananas and berries, then use kefir (dairy or coconut-based) as one of the liquid ingredients. This Post-Workout Perfection smoothie combines blueberries and bananas, so all you’d need to do is replace some of the coconut water with kefir.
- Make hummus or a remixed bean-based dip (lentils, black beans and kidney beans are all rich in prebiotics) blending in some garlic, green onion, olive oil and seasonings of choice.
What about probiotic supplements?
These have potential to be great and I take them myself. Like other supplements, not all are created equal and you’ll get what you pay for, so it’s definitely worth taking the time to do a bit of research first.
Things to know before you buy:
- Bacteria species + strains: Depending on the brand you choose, you’ll be getting different bacteria species and strains. Normally a combo is most ideal, but it’s a trial and error game that will depend on your body. You might find that you notice a significant improvement with some, but discomfort or digestive issues with others. I like to vary the brand that I purchase each time – again, to create some diversity. Among my rotation is Renew Life Ultimate Flora Critical Care, Garden of Life Mood+ Probiotic and Garden of Life Primal Defense Ultra Probiotic Formula.
- Colony-forming units (CFUs): This means the number of bacteria in the supplement, and the higher the number, the bigger the colony. (Sounds pretty obvious right?) You’ll notice that probiotics marketed as ‘critical care’ or ‘intensive support’ have higher CFU numbers.
- Format: There are liquid, tablet, powder and capsule forms of probiotics, and capsules are the most common I’ve seen. The trouble however, is that the supplement has to make it through your stomach before getting to the intestine where those beneficial bacteria are needed, and sometimes they don’t live to survive that whole journey. In other words, by the time they get to the intestines, they can’t work the magic they were intended for. To avoid wasting your money, be sure to look for the words “tested for survivability” on the package, or on the manufacturer’s website.
A word of caution on probiotic supplements: If you have a compromised gut condition like SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), you’ll probably want to pass on the probiotics as this can make symptoms worse. And of course, if you notice an allergic reaction or any other signs that something isn’t quite right after taking a probiotic, that’s a great sign you should probably stop!
Disclaimer: Just a friendly reminder that I’m not a doctor, and if you’re considering taking a new supplement, it’s always a good idea to check in with your doc or functional medicine practitioner to ensure it’s right for you.
So tell me… what are your favourite ways to look after your gut?
Aside from enjoying these delicious foods, I can absolutely vouch for the power of sleep and stress management for better gut health! Nothing throws me off faster than a high-stress week with not enough sleep, so these are 2 things I’m definitely prioritizing this year.