We can’t begin our conversation about prebiotics until we talk about probiotics (much like the way we can’t discuss the cultural effects of "Gossip Girl" without first discussing "Dawson’s Creek"). There’s been a lot of talk recently about probiotics. These are the “healthy bacteria” that are found in our gut that aid in our digestive processes. Probiotics can be found in a variety of foods, particularly yogurt (that’s what the label means when it says the yogurt contains “live and active cultures”). Doctors will often recommend taking probiotic supplements when antibiotics are prescribed for an infection. Since the antibiotics are killing off all the bacteria in the body, good and bad, research suggests that taking probiotic supplements can help counteract the ill effects.

So what are prebiotics and why haven’t you heard about them?

Prebiotics are the lesser-known sibling of probiotics. That is to say, prebiotics are the indigestible dietary fibers we get from food that probiotics use to flourish and grow. Whereas probiotics are living organisms, prebiotics are not. Prebiotics can help the bacteria that is naturally found in your intestines flourish. Some prebiotics you may have heard of include oligosaccharide and inulin, which is naturally found in the chicory root (which is naturally found at Whole Foods).

So where can you get a healthy dose of prebiotics? A Jerusalem artichoke, for one. (Honestly, if I went to the supermarket, I’m not even sure I could point out a regular artichoke, let alone a Jerusalem artichoke, but it’s in all the prebiotic literature). Some other foods that we eat a tad more regularly that contain prebiotics are onions, leeks, whole grains and bananas. These fibers are indigestible, meaning they make their way to our digestive tract intact, feeding probiotic bacteria and keeping our intestines healthy places, filled with goodbacteria.

Over the years, there has been more encouraging evidence that probiotics and prebiotics can help maintain a healthy digestive balance. There have been studies that suggest that these supplements can reduce the severity of a cold or the flu and can lessen the likelihood of developing certain cancers. Some doctors (particularly naturopathic ones) may suggest taking probiotic and prebiotic supplements on a regular basis if you’ve had recurrent yeast infections or suffer from irritable bowel syndrome. Because probiotics feed off of prebiotics, the two supplements generally go hand in hand, though some probiotic supplements also contain prebiotics — thus they are called synbiotics, because these probiotics and prebiotics are essentially working together. Make sure to check the label before you choose (the choices are vast) and of course, check with your doctor before starting any supplemental regimen.

Remember not to drive yourself crazy, though. If you generally eat a healthy, varied diet, chances are that you are getting both probiotics and prebiotics. Here is more info on interesting developments about the potential health benefits of probiotics, and read about probiotics' efficacy in children here.

— Chanie

Related health stories on MNN:

MNN tease image includes banana and Jerusalem artichoke from Shutterstock
What are prebiotics and do we need them?
There’s been a lot of talk about the benefits of probiotics or "healthy bacteria" but what are prebiotics? Why haven’t you heard about them & do you need them?