Eating a poor diet filled with processed foods, alcohol and hormones (from meat) can negatively impact the delicate balance of the gut microbiota. Stress is also another factor that can throw the balance of the gut out of whack, which can give rise to an increase in undesirable pathogenic bacteria, such as viruses, parasites and fungi. While we all have small numbers of opportunistic microbes in our gut, they stay relatively stable when we eat a healthy plant-based diet.
Prebiotics and probiotics can be taken in the form of supplements or food. Supplements are particularly useful when a person’s microbiome is out of balance. When people eat a poor diet, their microbial gut population will not be able to digest healthier fiber-rich foods.
Probiotics - A Simple Definition
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines probiotics as:
‘living microbial supplements that beneficially affect the host animals by improving its intestinal microbial balances’
Prebiotics are fuel for probiotics, and as such help probiotics proliferate. It’s important to state that prebiotics are naturally occurring in many plant-based foods such as garlic, leek, asparagus, onions bananas, dandelion greens and chicory root.
When probiotics and prebiotics are used together they are known as synbiotics, and the therapy is called microbiome therapy.
Here are 7 scientifically proven facts about prebiotics and probiotics:
1. Prebiotics Help Support Healthy Blood Pressure and Cholesterol Levels
One of the main outcomes of high blood pressure can be heart disease. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death around the world, killing about 647,000 Americans per year. The good news is that you can follow a predominantly plant-based diet and get regular exercise in order to support your overall cardiovascular health.
A 2014 study published in the journal Hypertension showed that consuming probiotics supports healthy blood pressure levels. Interestingly, the study exposed a connection between eating probiotic-rich food and healthy cholesterol levels.
2. Lactobacillus Creates Muscle Fuel
The probiotic Lactobacillus produces lactase and lactic acid. The lactase can help break down milk sugars, while the lactic acid helps the body absorb minerals and provides fuel for the muscles.
Many people mistake lactic acid as being a caustic waste product when it is actually used to produce energy. Interval training can help train the body to build up mitochondria to use up lactic acid. Scientists have found that lactate moves out of the muscles and travels to various organs, where it’s burned together with oxygen to make adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is fuel for cells. Meaning that lactate is an energy source, not a poison, as previously thought.
3. Probiotics Can Boost the Immune System
The proteobacteria Bifidobacteria supports the immune system in many ways, by inhibiting the growth of harmful intestinal bacteria. Bifidobacterium interacts directly with the human immune system and is found in larger amounts in infants who are breastfed. The high levels of Bifidobacteria found in breastfed infants decreases when a mother stops breastfeeding. Bifidobacteria encodes proteins that are implicated in the oxidative stress response. Because oxidative stress is related to ROS, improving blood antioxidant status can be beneficial for overall health.
Bifidobacterium longum (B. longum) is a microbial strain that lives in the GI tract. It helps breaks down carbohydrates and also works as an antioxidant, which supports the immune system.
4. Probiotics Used for Healthy Weight Management
Probiotics live throughout our entire body and help to digest food and utilize nutrients. The gut, mouth and colon are the most studied clusters of microbes. We now know what bacteria proliferate when we eat specific foods. Also that the diversity of gut microbes lessen in those suffering from obesity.
A study of 125 overweight men and women published by the British Journal of Nutrition followed subjects as they underwent a 24-week weight loss program. With 12 weeks of actively trying to lose weight, followed by a 12 week maintenance period, they found that the participants that were taking probiotics (Lactobacillus rhamnosus) lost 4.4kg, compared to 2.6kg weight loss in those not taking the probiotics. Interestingly, the probiotic group continued to lose weight during their maintenance phase, while the placebo groups weight remained stable.
5. Probiotics Can Make You Happier
People under stress have a different gut microbe composition, compared to that of those with a more calm and cheerful disposition. The bidirectional relationship between the gut and brain, known as the microbiome-brain-gut axis, is gaining traction with scientists worldwide. Just as stress can alter the gut microbiome, the microbiome can alter neural function.
Many central nervous system (CNS) disorders have been connected to an altered gut microbe population. Altering the homeostasis of the body and changing neural, humoral, immune and metabolic pathways. An interesting way to look at this is that the gut contains many neurons that influence our feelings of hunger and fullness, which, in turn, can be disrupted.
Researchers from UCLA’s School of Medicine have discovered that taking probiotics could promote an anxiolytic response. Participants in the study showed altered brain function when consuming probiotics.
6. Probiotics Can Inhibit Pathogenic Bacteria
Along with other nutritional interventions, probiotics have been found to inhibit pathogenic bacteria. In one randomized control trial, a group of elite rugby players taking probiotics was compared with a placebo. Of significant importance was the lower incidence of infection in those that took the probiotics.
The athletes were given daily probiotics for four weeks and asked to fill in a daily diary to track any symptoms of infection. 14 of the 30 taking probiotics didn’t experience any upper respiratory tract illness (URTI) or gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms compared to just 6 of the placebo group being clear of symptoms. This equates to 40% fewer instances of cold or stomach infection in the athletes taking probiotics.
7. Probiotics and Prebiotics Can be Taken Together
The practice of taking probiotics and prebiotics together is known as microbiome therapy. Although not required to take them in combination, if a person cannot tolerate green leafy vegetables, a prebiotic supplement could be a good idea. Prebiotics are the fuel for the good bacteria in the gut, which can be consumed in the form of probiotic supplements or probiotic-rich foods. Because prebiotics feeds the good bacteria in our gut, they are a good tool for boosting the immune system and promoting health and well-being.
The Bottom Line
The main reason that people lack prebiotics and probiotics is due to poor diet and lifestyle choices. Exercising regularly and consuming prebiotics and probiotics as part of a healthy diet produces many scientifically-backed health benefits, which include cardiovascular health, muscle fuel, immune-boosting properties, and increased happiness.
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