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Prebiotics and Your Gut Health

Image of GI Tract from Mariana Ruiz - LadyofHats.
Image of GI Tract from Mariana Ruiz - LadyofHats.

Keeping your gut working properly is one of the key ways to maintain overall health. Eating the wrong foods can leave you feeling tired, anxious and depressed. To make better choices, you need to know what your body is looking for and how it all works together. Here's a simple view of the process.

It starts with your digestive system. That's a series of hollow organs joined in a long twisting tube starting at your mouth and ending at your anus. All those things together are called the gastrointestinal tract or GI tract.

Your GI tract is lined with more than 100 million nerve cells. They make up a complex nervous system called the enteric nervous system or (ENS). Those nerve cells are hardwired to your brain. So when you take in poor quality food, your ENS sends signals to your brain that things aren't going so well.

The opposite is true when you eat stuff that's good for you. Your ENS messages your brain that you've got extra energy, feel good or are more alert. Here's how your GI tract deals with that food.

Your GI tract has a huge number of micro-organisms that live in it. Bacteria make up the largest amount along with single-celled organisms called archaea. You'll also find fungi, viruses and other microbes all mixing in your body. All that stuff living in your GI tract is called the human microbiota. (Some people call this the microbiome, but that's technically all the genes your microbiota contains.)

Everything you eat, is processed by all those organisms in your GI tract. At it's most basic level, every food contains calories. When we eat something, we process the calories and convert them into energy, muscle or store the excess calories as fat. But there are two other important uses for that food.

Many people have heard of probiotics. Probiotics can be loosely defined as, "Live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host." Essentially it's good bacteria inserted into food. It used to just be in things like yogurt and dietary supplements, but now it's in products as diverse as pizza, cereals, muffins and even chocolate.

Now we've learned there's something else, called Prebiotics. These were first identified and named by Marcel Roberfroid in 1995. Prebiotics are compounds in food that stimulate the growth and activity of good bacteria and fungi. Think of them as fertilizer for the good stuff growing in our bodies.

When we eat a lot of plants and fruits, especially ones with complex carbohydrates like fiber and resistant starch, we get plenty of beneficial prebiotics. Because your body can't digest them, they pass through and provide food for all those microbes.

Just a few of the foods packed with healthy prebiotics.
Just a few of the foods packed with healthy prebiotics.

But with a highly processed junk food diet, that doesn't happen. So companies have stepped in to offer foods and supplements with prebiotics in them.

Here's the problem. Prebiotics are still something that science doesn't fully understand. It's hard to show a direct relationship between taking a specific prebiotic and curing a problem. In fact, there isn't even a general agreement about what an ideal serving of prebiotics every day should be.

The range that researchers use is 4 to 8 grams a day (0.14 to 0.28 ounces) for general digestive health. If you've got an active digestive disorder, as much as 15 grams (0.53 ounces) might be needed. Because there are still questions on what would be best in supplement form, the safest thing to do is avoid supplements and get your prebiotics from real food.

The amount you need to eat is pretty small. Researchers published a study called, "Presence of inulin and oligofructose in the diets of Americans" in the July 1999, Journal of Nutrition. In that study they found that just 1.2 ounces of garlic or 4.4 ounces of whole wheat flour can give you 6 grams of healthy prebiotics.

Here's a list of real foods packed with prebiotics. Artichokes, asparagus, bananas, barley, berries, chicory, garlic, green vegetables, leeks, legumes (peas and beans), oats, onions, tomatoes, soybeans, wheat bran and whole wheat flour. How many of them are you eating regularly?

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