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Digestive health: Optimizing probiotics and prebiotics

Mary Ellen Sanders is an internationally recognized consultant in the area of probiotic microbiology. She helps food and supplement companies develop new probiotic products and provides technical support for enhancing existing probiotic ...

What you need to know for gut health

Digestive disorders cover a broad spectrum, but if you live with minor digestive issues, there may be simple nutritional and lifestyle changes you can make that can make a big difference. In addition, it’s important for you to understand the role that probiotics and prebiotics play in your digestive health.

Woman selecting probiotics from shelf

Basic digestive health tips

Understanding digestive health terms

Probiotic. Literally meaning "for life," a probiotic is a live microorganism, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confers a health benefit on the host. Examples of probiotics include different strains of Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and Sacccharomyces.

Prebiotic. Literally meaning "before life," a prebiotic is a selectively fermented food ingredient that results in specific, beneficial changes in the composition and/or activity of the colonizing microbes in the gastrointestinal tract, conferring benefit(s) upon host health. The best examples of prebiotics are inulin, galactooligosaccharides and fructooligosaccharides.

Synbiotic. The prefix/root word "syn" means "together." A synbiotic is a combination of a probiotic and prebiotic.

Antibiotic. Literally meaning "against life," an antibiotic is a substance produced by a microorganism, or a semi-synthetic derivative of this substance, that inhibits the growth of or kills other microorganisms. Microorganisms include fungi (yeast) and bacteria. Penicillin, discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928, was the first natural antibiotic.

Microorganism. Literally meaning "small organism," this is a one-celled organism. Microorganisms are very diverse, including bacteria, fungi, archaea and protists. Many microorganisms perform important functions, being responsible for oxygen production, food transformation, antibiotic production, industrial fermentation and nutrient recycling through their role in decomposition. Recently, their importance in proper growth and development of human immune systems and physiology has been recognized. A few microorganisms are pathogens, however, and can cause illness and disease.

The World Gastroenterology Organisation suggests increasing water, fiber (which includes prebiotics), oily fish and probiotic consumption, while reducing fatty foods, sugar-rich drinks, alcohol and caffeine. Their suggested lifestyle changes include reducing meal size (more, smaller meals, rather than fewer large ones), staying active and eating at a slower pace.

These recommendations sound familiar? Of course they do! Most are the same for managing any number of health concerns, from obesity to heart disease to cancer. But what may be unique is the mention of probiotics and prebiotics.

Probiotics and prebiotics more than buzzwords

Probiotics and prebiotics have been showing up in the news and in the marketplace a lot lately. Probiotics are live, beneficial microorganisms.

Prebiotics are soluble fibers that feed your native beneficial microorganisms, and encourage them to grow or be more active. The concept of probiotics is not new – more than 100 years ago scientists in Europe and Japan recognized the importance of a gut colonized with the right types of bacteria. What's new is that today's scientists have applied modern techniques to better understand the role of colonizing microorganisms in health and disease (see Human Microbiome Project) and how probiotics and prebiotics may influence them.

Benefits of probiotics and prebiotics

Although the science behind probiotics and prebiotics is still in an early phase, controlled human studies have shown that some strains of probiotics can improve regularity, help with managing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), improve tolerance to antibiotic treatment, reduce the duration of acute infectious diarrhea, reduce symptoms of colic, improve tolerance to lactose-containing foods and help prevent the development of necrotizing enterocolitis in preterm infants.

Some prebiotics have been shown to improve digestive function and intestinal environment, lipid metabolism and absorption of dietary minerals. Prebiotics can complement probiotic functions, and when both are delivered in one product, it is called a synbiotic.

Buyer beware: Products aren't always what they claim to be

The marketplace is difficult to navigate, however. Many products claiming to be "probiotic" may not have any rigorous science behind them. Such products may be beneficial, but only tested products should be called "probiotic." It's hard to recommend a product that has not been tested and shown to have a benefit, since comparative studies have shown that not all strains of live bacteria have the same effects. Some seem to be good at improving immune function; others may be good at helping with symptoms of IBS; others may not have any benefit at all. The best approach is to use a product that has been tested and shown to have the benefit you are looking for. See Probiotics: A Consumer Guide for Making Smart Choices and Prebiotics: A Consumer Guide for Making Smart Choices, developed by the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics for help in what to look for in probiotic and prebiotic products.

Talk to your doctor about digestive health

There's more to digestive health than including probiotics or prebiotics into your diet, but these ingredients may help. If you are concerned about your digestive health, confer with your doctor to rule out anything serious, and then consider dietary and lifestyle changes.

More on digestive health

5 Tips for women's digestive health
Eat your prebiotics for digestive health
Do you really need digestive enzymes for digestive health?
Early signs of digestive problems in women

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