Bacteria have received a bad reputation as disease-spreading "bugs.” What most people don’t realize is that there also are many friendly bacteria in our bodies that strengthen our immune systems, defend against pathogens and suppress allergic reactions.
When we take antibiotics or get infections, these protective bacteria may be destroyed, which can allow other, more opportunistic organisms to flourish, such as yeast, fungus and c-difficile, a bacteria that can cause diarrhea.
Restoring protective bacteria is one function of probiotics, living organisms that occur naturally in cultured foods and beverages.
Prebiotics are nondigestible nutrients that the friendly bacteria in your gut use as a source of energy, and the friendly bacteria are the probiotics. In the colon, the prebiotics release short-chain fatty acids. These alter the pH of the colon and enhance absorption of minerals, including calcium, iron and magnesium. The altered pH also increases probiotic survival. Some prebiotics may also help alleviate constipation.
Some foods we can eat that can increase the amount of prebiotics in our diets include: artichokes, chicory root, oats, barley, legumes, greens and garlic. To increase our probiotic intake we can eat more of these foods: yogurt, kefir, miso, tempeh and sauerkraut.
Probiotics may be included in supplements that may contain a variety of different strains of healthy bacteria. Acidophilus is a common one. Prebiotics also can be found in supplements. Fructo-oligosaccharides, a type of plant sugars linked in chains, is a substance commonly found in prebiotic supplements. It is usually found in asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, or soybeans. A supplement also may contain inulin, which is a starchy substance found in a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, including wheat, onions, bananas, leeks, artichokes, and asparagus.
The inulin that is used for medicine is most commonly obtained by soaking chicory roots in hot water. But just remember that the best way to get probiotics or prebiotics is to consume the least processed and most whole food sources. By taking supplements, you may be missing out on other protective health benefits from these foods. If supplements are taken, be sure to consult a physician or healthcare provider.
For more information about Beebe Healthcare, go to www.beebehealthcare.org.
Lourie Cherundolo, MS, RD, LDN, has worked at Beebe Healthcare for nine years. She is currently a clinical dietitian manager. Cherundolo graduated from Marywood University with a master’s degree in food and nutrition, and a bachelor’s degree in dietetics.