One area of nutrition that has attracted interest from clinicians, health enthusiasts and sports nutritionists alike is the topic of intestinal microflora: there are claims that including probiotics and prebiotics in your diet can have health and performance boosting effects and get many desired results. Read ahead and find out what probiotics and prebiotics actually are and if there’s any truth to these claims.
What are Probiotics and Prebiotics?
Probiotics have a favorable effect on the population of the ‘good’ bacteria that reside in our digestive systems. They can be defined as a preparation or a product that alter the microflora of the host intestine and, thus, exert beneficial health effects on the host.
Inside our intestine, we have microflora that live in a natural symbiotic relationship with our body, and are essential to good health, having a number of positive effects: primarily helping our digestive system work efficiently. Most people traditionally view bacteria as being ‘bad’, whereas in reality there are only a relatively small number of strains that are pathogenic, and most microbes are harmless and contribute to good health and well-being.
Examples of probiotics are bifidus and acidophilus, and they are found in live yogurts, powders, specially formulated probiotic drinks or supplement capsules, which contain one or more of the strains of these good bacteria. Through food processing, pollution and antibiotic therapy, numbers of our gut microflora can be diminished. Studies have shown that, by actively consuming the right bacteria, the size of the colonies in the gut can be increased, which improves digestion. Moreover, numerous studies have also shown that, with optimal numbers, the immune system is improved, increasing our ability to fight disease. Probiotics also have a role in reducing the severity of allergies.
Prebiotics are nutrients and constituents of the food that our gut flora feed on, thus increasing their numbers. Prebiotics include fructo-oligosaccharides, which are naturally found in many plants, including leeks, onions, wheat, garlic, chicory root and artichokes, where they function as storage carbohydrates, and some other soluble fibers found in pulses, fruit, and some cereal products. Fructo-oligosaccharides are low molecular weight carbohydrates, and since they are not broken down significantly by the digestive processes in the stomach and small intestine, they are classified as dietary fiber. They are water-soluble, being non-viscous fructans, and have a low water retention capacity. Thus prebiotics also help digestion and the immune system by increasing microflora levels.