Prebiotic power: Diet rich in garlic, onion, apple can keep your gut healthy
Unlike probiotics, prebiotics are non-living organisms that aid the bacteria, naturally found in the intestines, to flourish.
Most of us are aware of the existence of ‘probiotics’, though we may not know their exact workings. However, ‘prebiotics’ are hardly known and their benefits under-appreciated.
“Prebiotics are non-digestible dietary fibres that promote growth of beneficial microorganisms in the intestine. Unlike probiotics, prebiotics are non-living organisms and aid the bacteria — naturally found in the intestines — to flourish,” said Dr Vikramjeet Singh, senior consultant (internal medicine) at Delhi-based Aakash Healthcare Super Speciality Hospital.
Simply put, prebiotics act as food for good bacteria, said Dr Lovneet Batra, nutritionist at Delhi-based Fortis La Femme.
Lack of enough prebiotics can result in health issues such as a weakened immune system and a poor digestive system. Pairing the two (prebiotics and probiotics), following a healthy lifestyle and eating a nutritious diet can help in achieving a healthy body.
The benefits of prebiotics range from regulating your immune system to balancing hormones.
“Prebiotics are selectively utilised in the gut to increase healthy bacteria. They aid digestion and enhance the production of valuable vitamins. They also promote growth of beneficial bacteria without feeding the ‘bad’ types. The good bacteria play a significant role in regulating your immune system, inhibiting the growth of pathogens (disease-causing bacteria) and digesting food,” said Asma Roohi, senior dietician at Bengaluru-based Primecare Hospital.
“Prebiotics help increase absorption of minerals such as calcium and magnesium that can increase bone density. They help improve the immune system, reduce bad cholesterol, control weight and appetite, better hormonal balance, and lower inflammation and stress response,” explained Batra.
The importance of gut health cannot be ignored as it affects the overall health of a person, and thus, the bacteria living in the gut is an integral part of our well-being, said Singh.
“We have around 1-3 kg of bacteria living in our system. When one is low on prebiotics, it can lead to a weakened immune system and poor digestive system,” he said.
Inadequate amount of prebiotics can also lead to decreased growth of good bacteria and drop in pH levels, creating an acidic gut environment, added Batra.
Sheela Joseph, senior dietician at Bengaluru-based Sparsh Hospital, said foods such as artichoke, garlic, onion, raw wheat bran, whole wheat flour and raw banana are natural prebiotics. Batra added tomato, carrot, apple and coconut meat to the list, while Singh mentioned that fermented yoghurt and commercially-available capsules and powders can also be consumed to increase prebiotic levels in the gut.
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According to Batra, you don’t need prebiotic supplements as long as you’re having two servings of fruits and fourfive servings of vegetables a day.
Roohi said to experience any meaningful health benefits from natural sources, one would have to consume unrealistically-large portions of these foods. “Most of us wouldn’t relish the thought of eating two large onions a day to get a decent dose of prebiotics. Consuming large amounts of these foods wouldn’t make you very popular with your dinner guests either! That said, it is still a good idea to consume prebiotic foods when you can,” she said.
While all prebiotics are classed as fibre, not all fibres are prebiotics. Common forms of dietary fibre present in a majority of plant-based foods and grains are less selectively fermented by the bacteria in the gut but lack some of the health benefits demonstrated by true prebiotics. “However, they are still of benefit to our health and their consumption is to be encouraged as they help maintain regular toilet habits and promote the health of the gut itself,” Roohi added.
Dr Aditi Sharma, executive (nutrition and dietetics department), Columbia Asia Hospital, Ghaziabad, said that if one is allergic to the ingredients in the natural sources of prebiotics, one can consult a doctor before taking supplements. “For example, those who are allergic to lactose should avoid dairy products such as yoghurt, which is a good source of prebiotics,” she said.
“When taking prebiotics for the first time, some individuals may find that it takes a few days for their system to adjust. Symptoms such as tummy gurgling are an indication that the gut bacteria are in the process of being rebalanced. Large amounts of prebiotic fibre provide an abundance of food for a range of gut bacteria and when utilised, this can result in an excess of gas in the intestine. The most common side effects of prebiotics are abdominal bloating and discomfort, occurring when large doses are consumed. In all cases, it is still advisable to adhere to the recommended dosages of any product,” said Roohi.
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Singh added that people with a history of abdominal swelling, irritable bowel syndrome and diarrhoea should avoid taking prebiotics.
Taking the advice of a nutritionist or a medical gastroenterologist to determine the right quantity of consumption before directly buying from the market is imperative, advised Joseph.
“One must inform his/her doctor about the current list of medications, over-the-counter products (for example, vitamins and herbal supplements), allergies, pre-existing diseases and current health conditions (for example, pregnancy and upcoming surgery). If you are pregnant, planning to get pregnant or are breastfeeding, and you use other drugs or over-thecounter products at the same time, the effects of prebiotics/probiotics may change. This may increase your risk for side effects or cause your drug to not work properly,” said Roohi.
Probiotics are the good bacteria in the gut that improve digestion — these are living bacteria. However, probiotics need food to survive. Consuming a limited amount of prebiotics, which are non-living, act as food to probiotics and facilitate the growth of good bacteria. Unlike probiotics, that are affected by heat, stomach acids or die with time, prebiotics are not affected by either heat or enzymes.