When it comes to gut health, there’s a lot of hype about probiotics – but what about the benefits of prebiotics? Research on prebiotics is expanding rapidly, but studies show promising results. Consuming prebiotic foodsyou can reduce the possibility of developing chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes.
So what exactly are prebiotics? Prebiotics act as fertilizer for the beneficial bacteria in your gut. They provide food for these bacteria and enable them to thrive. You can find them in foods like Jerusalem artichokes, bananas and oats. Probioticson the other hand, they are microorganisms that are beneficial for gut health.
Numerous studies support the evidence on probiotics, but research on prebiotics is relatively new. We’ll take a closer look at what science tells us about the benefits of prebiotics and weigh the evidence so far. Plus, find out five ways to improve gut health and ‘what is leaky gut‘ here at Live Science.
1. Supports gut health
Prebiotics have been proven to play an essential role in support gut health. They provide food for the beneficial bacteria in your gut and cultivate diverse gut flora, linked to a reduced risk of chronic health conditions.
“There are thousands of species of bacteria that live in the gut, and not all of them survive on the same nutrients,” says Debbie Petitpain, MS, RDN and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Prebiotics, therefore, affect the growth of some bacteria over others. They affect the overall gut microbiome or the complex community of microorganisms living in the digestive tract.
When prebiotics are fermented, they produce beneficial molecules called short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). According to International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (opens in new tab) (ISAPP), these compounds are essential for gut health and may inhibit inflammation, which is associated with a higher risk of disease.
2. It can relieve constipation
If you are constipated, prebiotics can provide the relief you need. According to ISAPP, prebiotics regulate bowel movements and can relieve symptoms of constipation.
However, if you have a diagnosis of IBS, the evidence is mixed. A summary of 2020 in Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine (opens in new tab) found that prebiotics can relieve constipation in people with IBS. However, a 2021 study in Nutrients (opens in new tab) suggests that the evidence is too limited to draw conclusions. Bloating and gas are known side effects of prebiotics, so you’ll want to start small if you’re prone to these symptoms.
3. It can make you feel fuller
Do you want to lose excess weight? You may have heard claims that prebiotics reduce cravings and make you feel full, which can help with weight loss. The good news is that there is new evidence to support this view. A judgment published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (opens in new tab) showed that oligofructose, a type of dietary fiber found naturally in foods such as onions, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, garlic and oats, suppresses the hunger hormone ghrelin in overweight adults.
4. May improve mineral absorption
Minerals are an essential part of a healthy diet. However, consuming minerals is only half the story—your intestines must absorb these minerals to reap the full benefits. According to Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, (opens in new tab) prebiotics can improve the absorption of minerals such as calcium which is essential for strong teeth and bones.
5. It can regulate blood sugar
If you have diabetes, regulating your blood sugar can help manage your symptoms. According to ISAPP (opens in new tab), prebiotics are linked to improved blood sugar control. A 2019 review of 33 studies in Journal of Translational Medicine (opens in new tab) showed that taking prebiotics lowered fasting blood sugar levels and lowered HbA1c, a marker of blood sugar control.
However, questions remain about the extent of the impact of prebiotics. A 2021 court (opens in new tab) found that six weeks of prebiotics made little difference to fasting glucose levels in people with type 2 diabetes. The researchers concluded that a longer duration may be necessary to affect blood sugar levels.
6. May increase immune function
It’s no surprise that immunity is an area of growing interest in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. There is growing evidence that a healthy microbiome, the body’s community of microorganisms, can enhance immune function. A letter in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (opens in new tab) suggests that a healthy microbiome supports the body’s natural defenses and boosts immunity. Prebiotics provide food for beneficial bacteria in the gut and can thus enhance immune function.
High immunity is associated with low levels of inflammation. A review (opens in new tab) found that there is promising evidence that prebiotics can reduce inflammation. These findings may be because prebiotics maintain the integrity of the intestinal wall, which acts as a barrier to harmful molecules.
7. It can reduce the risk of chronic diseases
“Food sources of prebiotics have been associated with the reduction of most chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes, cancer and obesity,” says Petitpain.
Scientists do not fully understand the mechanism, but prebiotics may increase the diversity of gut bacteria, which is linked to decreased inflammation, which in turn reduces the risk of chronic disease.
8. It can affect mood
Have you ever wondered what the connection is between prebiotics and your brain? Scientists are exploring the concept of the gut-brain axis, with gut health affecting your brain. Appearing explorative (opens in new tab) links different bacteria in the gut with reduced symptoms of depression. While there is no evidence that they improve mental health, increasing the diversity of gut flora is one of the benefits of prebiotics. The effect on our mood is a compelling area for further investigation.
So the benefits of prebiotics include increasing the diversity of gut bacteria, which is beneficial to our overall health. But while research on prebiotics is still emerging, scientists are unraveling cause and effect.
“Because prebiotics are found in high-fiber foods and fiber foods provide many benefits—including controlling blood sugar, lowering ‘bad’ cholesterol, and promoting satiety—it’s easy to say that prebiotics play a role.” , explains Petitpain.
What does this mean practically? “Until the science goes deeper and tells us more about what role prebiotics play and how much of an impact they have, the best thing to do is to include plenty of fiber foods in your diet.”