I think that by now most people are well aware of probiotics and can appreciate the benefits of having healthy bacteria levels in their gut. In fact, I am approached by people all the time who are trying to find the perfect probiotic, the one pill that will fix their abdominal concerns once and for all. And there is one thing that I notice about those people - they’re still searching for that one pill. They will continue to search, fruitlessly. There is no perfect pill. Life, and certainly not gut health, is ever that simple. But perhaps there are some ways to help probiotics work better for us and in doing so, provide for a healthier gut! But first let’s define a few things.
Probiotics vs. Prebiotics
We know that a probiotic is simply a friendly microorganism that populates the digestive tract. The medical literature is becoming quite clear that without a healthy, diverse, and robust population (called the gut microbiome) gut health and even general health becomes a problem. So taking in some gut friendly bacteria can really help with both the number of organisms and the diversity.
Now to take a step back let’s define “prebiotic.” Simply put a pre-biotic is food for gut bacteria. These tend to be indigestible fibers from plants. This means that we humans lack the enzymes to digest these fibers, but the bacteria in our gut have the ability to ferment them and break them down for us. So the more veggies we eat, and in fact the more diverse the veggies are that we eat, the more robust the gut bacteria populations. Some probiotics come with added prebiotic in the same pill.
But I want you to remember that food is really the best medicine. Consuming more veggies in general, and consuming a larger diversity of veggies, is key to feeding all the different kinds of bacteria we have in our guts. The biggest mistake people make is that they have one or two veggies they like and only eat those. I call them the “green bean eaters.” Please don’t be that person! The trick is to eat veggies you don’t like! If you avoid vegetables then the specific fibers in those veggies will not be present to feed the specific bacteria in our gut that thrive on them. There may be bacteria that prefer artichoke fiber, and another that prefers bok choy, and yet another that likes parsnip fiber. Diversity is key in the prebiotic world. So get creative and enjoy your veggies!
Lastly we come to “postbiotics.” This is a new one for most people. There is more and more research coming out every day describing how important they are for not only gut health but for our health in general. A postbiotic is any substance that is made from a friendly bacteria that benefits our physiology. This can be seen in a lot of areas. For example, we require gut bacteria to help us produce many of the essential vitamins we require for health. They basically convert the vitamins found in our food into a form that our bodies can actually use. So poor gut bacteria status usually correlates with nutrient deficiency at the very least.
I want to introduce you to some extremely important postbiotics that are emerging in the literature as compounds essential for health and wellness. One major benefit of a healthy, robust, and diverse gut microbiome is that we are gifted by them short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). Specifically these SCFAs are acetate, propionate, and butyrate. There are very few foods that contain these SCFAs naturally. Most all of the SCFAs we have in our bodies are as a result of our gut bacteria.
These compounds work in several ways. Firstly they help feed each other (called cross-feeding). They become symbiotic to each other. The more SCFAs in the gut the healthier the gut because more and more friendly gut bacteria can thrive. Secondly, SFCAs feed the gut cells directly. This helps with gut repair, keeps inflammation low, and allows for a nice tight gut barrier so that things like food sensitivities don’t have a chance to set in. People with Inflammatory Bowel Diseases (IBD) tend to be low in SCFAs as a general rule. And third, SCFAs have the ability to leave the confines of the digestive tract and circulate throughout the blood stream where they can act as cellular messengers throughout the body. Studies have shown how these can impact things like depression and even weight loss/appetite control. But the list is really quite vast.
A Healthy Microbiome
So to conclude, when thinking about healing your gut you need to move past the “one symptom, one pill” mindset that we are all so easily distracted by. There is no magic pill. Instead, follow the pathway of a healthy gut microbiome. Start with a diverse and copious plant based diet. I am not saying you need to be vegetarian or vegan… Just eat the majority of your diet as plant based foods. This will supply plenty of prebiotics. Then if you care to add in a good quality probiotic you will provide a greater number and possibly a greater diversity of your gut bacteria levels. Again, it is the total number and the diversity of organisms that equate to optimal gut health. And lastly take in some supplemental SCFA postbiotics. This will help in more ways than one.
Stay tuned to my next article where I will discuss in much more detail the benefits of SCFA supplementation for situations like bowel disease, autoimmunity, obesity, and more.