Prebiotics are compounds in food that help the beneficial bacteria of the intestine grow and do their job of breaking down and absorbing food better. Essentially they feed the kinds of organisms that probiotics are rich in (1).
Prebiotics are usually foods that have a lot of fiber, and they help the bacterial ecosystem of your gut process foods and nutrients on an improved basis.
Its cousin, probiotics, are tiny, living organisms which help your body and your digestive system function at optimal capacity. For years now, they’ve been all the rage. People have consumed probiotics wherever they can: in yogurt, other dairy products, specialized drinks like kombucha, and even traditional fermented foods like kimchi (2).
1Prebiotics improve digestive health. The largest and most often-touted benefit of prebiotics is that they help your digestive system do its daily work. Prebiotics help the healthy, beneficial bacteria that live in your gut grow and flourish.
This balances out any toxins, bad bacteria, or unhelpful microorganisms that may be living down there as well. It’s really simple: research directly shows that prebiotic intake increases the population of healthy intestinal microflora to improve digestive health (3).
The result is that your body processes food and even toxins at maximal capacity, getting as many of the good nutrients as possible while expelling as many bad ingredients as it can.
This is also the root cause that you can thank for many of prebiotics’ other benefits. As it turns out, gut health is important not just for your belly, but for many of your body’s other physiological systems and functions.
2Prebiotics can help treat chronic digestive conditions. Chronic disorders of the gut like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, as well as any kind of digestive inflammation or infection, aren’t just annoying, they can have a profound impact on the way you live your life, as well as lead to other health risks and complications.
Such conditions impact the food you eat, whether or not you’re able to drink, even whether some social situations, like going out to dinner or grabbing drinks after work with coworkers, are available to you. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Nutrition showed that prebiotics have such a huge impact on the body that they can actually help relieve some of the symptoms of such diseases (4).
Another 2007 study demonstrated that prebiotics with a lot of fiber in them help stabilize your gut, reducing the risk of such chronic conditions as well as their severity (5).
3Prebiotics can help with diarrhea. Not only are prebiotics a wonder-food for those who suffer from chronic conditions like ulcerative colitis, but they can also help the average person who experiences a bad bout of diarrhea after eating something that their stomach doesn’t agree with. Numerous studies show that both prebiotics and their close cousin, probiotics, have positive effects when used to treat diarrhea (6).
Even among reviews and studies that don’t have conclusive findings, prebiotics are marked as a promising method for both avoiding diarrhea in the first place and for preventing it from happening again (7).
Further research is needed, however, to figure out the best timing and dosage for using prebiotics to combat diarrhea.
4Prebiotics may help with stress and mental health. In recent years, one of the hottest topics in research has been the connection between gut function and mental health (8).
Having a healthy, well-functioning digestive system is starting to look more and more like a factor in having an equally healthy mind, with both depression and anxiety being linked to inflammation in the gut in some cases (9).
A 2015 study showed that when probiotics were administered to healthy patients, prebiotic supplements were shown to reduce the body’s production of cortisol (10).
Cortisol is a natural response that’s developed as a part of our fight-or-flight systems, but it can have negative effects on mental health (11).
If prebiotics can help lower cortisol levels and prevent stress, they may have a role to play in combating stress-related mental health disorders like anxiety.
5Prebiotics may reduce the risk of cancer. A 2010 review published in The British Journal of Nutrition showed that there is a reduction in the numbers of tumors and cancers in those who have a diet rich in prebiotics (12).
Of course, this applies mainly to cancers of the digestive system and its related areas, like colon cancer. Eating prebiotics is certainly good for your health, but it may not necessarily help with, say, skin cancer.
Despite the fact that more research is needed, some studies have shown that prebiotics may even be able to prevent human colorectal cancer, not merely alleviate the symptoms or the severity. Eating a diet rich in prebiotics may be one of the best ways to avoid getting cancer in the first place (13, 14).
6Prebiotics can help prevent obesity. Prebiotics can legitimately impact your diet in a positive way, keeping you healthy and lowering unnecessary or unhealthy levels of fat in the body. In regards to weight, prebiotics have the potential for, essentially, two different functions.
On the one hand, a 2015 study showed that prebiotics might help you maintain a healthy body weight (15).
Because they’re rich in fiber, your body will feel full faster, with a much smaller amount of carbs, calories, trans fats, and other unhealthy things you might be taking in through your food. In general, diets rich in fiber are good for both obesity and diabetes mellitus — meaning a diet rich in prebiotics likely is as well (16).
The other way it combats obesities is due to the effects that prebiotics have on your gut microflora. Prebiotics might impact the way your body processes food, helping to keep you leaner and more muscular. In one study, the usage of prebiotics significantly decreased obesity in a population of overweight children (17).
7Prebiotics may help with eczema and other skin conditions. When children or babies develop eczema, the parents are often given a prescription for probiotic or prebiotic supplements or baby food.
While there is weak evidence that probiotic usage helps eczema directly, further research is required on the effects of prebiotics (18). For the meantime, it seems safe to assume that prebiotics may have a marginal beneficial impact on eczema development in children.
8 Prebiotics can benefit your cardiovascular system. Manydiets which are rich in fiber, and thus prebiotics, are proven to be beneficial for cholesterol levels (19).
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that fiber-rich foods, like prebiotics, are even helpful across a wide range of cardiovascular disease and conditions, not just ADL cholesterol (20).
9Prebiotics can benefit bone health and help prevent fractures. Regular consumption of prebiotics can actually improve how healthy your bones are, leading to fewer breaks, fractures and other issues with your skeletal system. Since prebiotics increase the efficacy of your dietary system, feeding the microorganisms that help it flourish, a diet rich in prebiotics also increases your body’s uptake of essential nutrients and minerals, like calcium, iron or magnesium (21).
Such research suggests prebiotics aren’t just good for preventing fractures. They may also help with fighting against chronic bone conditions like osteoporosis.
1Prebiotics and their close cousin, probiotics, may worsen the gas and bloating you seek them out for. Even though a diet rich in fiber is almost always a good choice, for some users it could actually make it harder to pass stools or solve underlying digestive issues by increasing gas and bloating.
Of course, this is only a subset of users. In most trials, prebiotics are shown to have positive effects on such digestive discomfort.
However, this possible side effect is still good to keep in the back of your head just in case. If you begin taking prebiotics and you actually notice that your symptoms are starting to worsen in a serious and noticeable way, then it may be worth it to put prebiotics on hold until you can talk to your doctor about it it.
2There may be side effects not yet fully understood by scientists. According to a 2018 study in Annals of Internal Medicine, scientists found that health risks, adverse effects, and bad side effects often aren’t really reported in clinical and animal trials concerning prebiotics and probiotics (22).
They’re both relatively new approaches to understanding and trying to aid human gut health, so the adverse risks haven’t necessarily been ironed out yet.
3While prebiotics certainly increase the amount of microflora living in your gut, they may not necessarily help with the diversity of said bacteria the same way that probiotics do (23). Whether that’s a good or bad thing remains to be seen. That said, prebiotics aren’t a normal “drug” like antibiotics or retroviral medications.
Though supplements may come in pill form, they’re mostly just fiber, which is totally a natural component of a regular diet. That means that overall, you can expect fewer complications from prebiotics than you might a typical medication or a more contentious supplement.
Unfortunately, prebiotics are a relatively new addition to the world of internal medicine and gut health (24).
While it’s great that such an innovative approach is being researched and is now relatively available to the public, it also means that there’s not that much information out there on dosing and how much a given person should take per day. There is no consensus among the available scientific evidence about what works best for most people.
That said, there are some general guidelines one can follow when introducing any new supplement to one’s diet.
It’s probably better to begin with a small amount, no more than 1 or 2 grams a day, for at least a week or two. After that, users can begin adding more and more in small amounts, monitoring carefully how their body is reacting to the new dietary changes.
Are prebiotics safe to use? Yes, as mentioned earlier in this article, prebiotics haven’t been fully researched in terms of adverse side effects. That being said, there are no reports of people dying or suffering from health problems due to a diet high in prebiotics. If you’re worried about it, you can simply try adding prebiotics into your diet on a slow, steady basis – monitoring any significant changes in your body.
Are prebiotics safe for pregnant women? Again, yes. There are no recorded health issues associated with taking prebiotics or eating fiber-rich foods while you’re pregnant. Of course, adhering to a good diet for your pregnancy in all respects is still necessary. You can’t simply take prebiotics and expect they’ll fill in any gaps caused by malnutrition. However, as long as you’re taking prebiotics in addition to an otherwise healthy diet, and you’re taking them in reasonable amounts, there’s no reason it should affect your pregnancy.
What foods are rich in prebiotics? Prebiotics are everywhere. Chances are, you’re probably even getting some in your normal diet. However, if you want to load up on them, some foods you can look out for are Chicory root, dandelion greens, garlic, leeks, onions, and bananas. If you’re having a hard time remembering specific foods with prebiotic content, just think about it: prebiotics are often rich in fiber. So if you’re eating foods that are known for being full of healthy fiber, like asparagus, you’re probably getting some prebiotics along with it.
Are prebiotic supplements an option? Of course, you might not be the kind of person who wants to get your prebiotics from your food. Maybe you don’t have the time nor the inclination to purchase that much fresh produce on a regular basis. If that’s the case, you don’t have to worry, there are plenty of prebiotic supplements available to consumers who want them.
Are prebiotics the same thing as probiotics? No, probiotics are foods or supplements loaded with good bacteria, the kind that your gut needs to function healthily. Prebiotics are foods high in fiber, which are good for feeding the microorganisms that already exist in your gut. It’s a subtle but important difference.
Can I take prebiotics and probiotics at the same time? Yes. Probiotics and prebiotics do different things. In fact, there’s even a category of product that offers probiotics and prebiotics in the same package. They’re called synbiotics. That said, prebiotics and probiotics are both supplements that affect your digestive system, so it may not be wise to take a huge dosage of both simultaneously, or to very suddenly start taking a high dosage of one while already taking the other. In simultaneous use cases, gradually and carefully upping your dose is likely the best bet.
Do prebiotics interact with drugs? In some cases, yes, though it may not be in specifically the way you’re thinking. For example, prebiotics can help with diarrhea or stomach upset caused by antibiotics (25). Because the side effects of prebiotics aren’t particularly well-researched, however, it may be worth it to ask your doctor before taking them if you’re already on another course of medicine.
Can I drink alcohol while taking prebiotics? Yes, alcohol and prebiotics don’t really have any interactions to speak of. Drinking (a moderate amount) while also taking prebiotics (in moderation) is completely safe.
Where do prebiotics come from? There are a wide variety of prebiotics on the market, so it can be hard to pin down exactly where they come from. That said, if you buy a bottle of prebiotic supplements, it’ll most likely say where the root source is. In general, prebiotics are either totally naturally or synthetically manufactured. You could find inulin, for example, in asparagus, or you could find it in processed ingredients like chicory root extract, or in a processed form such as oligofructose.
Is raw apple cider vinegar a prebiotic? Yes, apple cider vinegar is a prebiotic, which feeds probiotics (the healthy microflora in your inner ecosystem).
Are prebiotics better than probiotics? Neither is better or worse as they both complement each other in managing the gut bacteria in the body.
Do prebiotics help with weight loss? Yes, prebiotics can help with weight loss by promoting a healthy gut flora while also increasing satiety.
Is Metamucil a prebiotic? While psyllium is not considered a prebiotic it is considered to have prebiotic effects. Psyllium is somewhat resistant to fermentation, however, a small portion of psyllium fibers can be fermented by intestinal bacteria.
How do prebiotics work? A prebiotic is a special type of soluble fiber that is used mostly by the beneficial good bacteria as a fuel. These good bacteria, in turn, produce certain substances that acidify the colon (a very good thing) and serve as a nutrition source for the colon’s own cells.
To sum it up, prebiotics are fiber-rich foods or supplements that help the microorganisms in your digestive system grow and flourish. By doing so, prebiotics improve your digestive health and can help with chronic digestive disorders.
Moreover, the way prebiotics improve your gut health may have a much wider positive impact, improving cardiovascular health, reducing your risk for cancer and decreasing stress, among other effects.
As of now, there aren’t any major, life-threatening side effects reported from prebiotic usage, but more research is required. In any case, prebiotic diets seem linked to a wide variety of health benefits and they could be a great option for those seeking better digestive health, young and old alike.