What Do Prebiotics Do? All about Your Personal Microbiome

By Bridget M. Burns in Healthy Feeling

When it comes to maintaining your personal health, balance is key. For example, you may balance exercise with necessary rest, and you balance your diet to include all the nutrients your body requires. But balance is also important to maintaining the health of your gut's microbiome. According to the  BBC Science Focus Magazine, your gut's microbiome is made of trillions of bacteria and fungi that inhabit your digestive tract. Together, they can influence your metabolism, immune system, and even your mood.

So, what do prebiotics do? There is evidence to suggest that consuming prebiotics can help to keep your gut's complex microbiome in check.

What Are Prebiotics?

According to the Mayo Clinic, prebiotics are found in foods that may already be a part of your regular diet. These are typically high in fiber and include whole grains, bananas, greens, and onions. In order to be considered a prebiotic, a food must go beyond being nutritionally beneficial to you. It must also "feed" the human microflora that lives inside your digestive system. Consumers can also now purchase prebiotic supplements.

As a review in the scientific journal Foods explains, prebiotics are only classified as such if they:

  • Resist the acidic pH of the stomach
  • Cannot be broken down by mammalian enzymes
  • Cannot be absorbed in the intestinal tract
  • Are fermented by the gut microflora
  • Support the growth or activity of gut bacteria

Bananas on cutting board

Prebiotics vs. Probiotics

According to the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics, the concept of prebiotics was first explored in 1995 and centered on groups of beneficial bacteria in the gut, such as bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. Prebiotics are nutrients that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in and on your body by feeding them.

Probiotics, on the other hand, are foods that actually contain microorganisms, as the Mayo Clinic notes. The most universally known example of a probiotic is yogurt. According to an article in Beneficial Microbes, the term probiotic means "for life" in Latin, and human use of these foods can be traced back nearly 10,000 years.

So, to simplify it, probiotics contain bacteria you add to your gut, while prebiotics feed existing good bacteria. Prebiotics may even ultimately serve as food for your probiotics!

How Do You Obtain Prebiotics?

You are likely already getting prebiotics through your diet. Here are some common means of getting these substances:

  • Eating high-fiber fruits, such as bananas
  • Increasing your intake of leafy greens
  • Incorporating whole-grain oats into your diet
  • Using onion and garlic for flavor in cooking
  • Adding a prebiotic supplement to your daily routine (discuss this with your doctor first)

prebiotic foods onions

Health Benefits of Prebiotics

You may understand that prebiotics feed your gut's microbiome, but what exactly does that mean, and what benefit does it have? What do prebiotics do, exactly?

According to the Foods review, your diet is the main source of energy for the growth of microorganisms living in your large intestine. Non-digestible carbohydrates are especially important, as they are still intact when they reach this part of your digestive system. Microbes ferment these prebiotics for energy, which in turn influences intestinal functions related to your health, such as metabolism. Keeping these microbes fed also affects the overall integrity of the intestine.

Beyond keeping the microbiome healthy, prebiotics have a secondary effect. As the intestinal microbiota eat the prebiotic nutrients, they release short-chain fatty acids into the bloodstream. These include lactic acid, butyric acid, and propionic acid, which help to decrease the pH of the colon. They can also stimulate your immune system to fight against harmful microorganisms.

Because of the known connection between the intestinal tact and the central nervous system, several studies have been conducted looking at the effect of prebiotics on brain function. These studies have shown that prebiotics can improve mood, decrease anxiety, help with immediate memory recall, and optimize overall cognitive function. There are also studies currently being conducted looking into possible therapeutic affects of prebiotics on patients with autism, due to the different composition of their gut microbiota. In addition, other research has shown that the fermentation products of prebiotics could protect against colorectal cancer.

Ensuring Your Gut Microbiome Is Healthy

So, should you change your diet to include only salads and bananas? Of course not! Instead, weigh the evidence with how your body feels, and see if you can work prebiotics into your daily routine. Luckily, incorporating prebiotics can work well with many nutritional lifestyles, including veganism, paleo, and even an Ayurvedic diet.


Are you on the prebiotic bandwagon? Show us how you include them in your daily routine by tagging @toms_of_maine on Instagram!

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Why It's Good

Following a diet that supports your body's systems can lead to a healthier life. By understanding what prebiotics are and how they work, you can incorporate them into your diet to benefit your gut's microbiome.