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Gut health basics
When it comes to disease prevention and overall wellness, it's a good idea to pay attention to the health of your gut microbiome.
That's the billions of teeming bacteria and other organisms found in your intestines that help digest your food and regulate your immune system.
In fact, as much as 70 percent of our entire immune system is in the gut, according to the Journal of Translational Immunology.
The gut microbiome may impact everything from body weight to blood sugar regulation, and even mood, according to reports published in journals like Cell, the Postgrad Medical Journal, and Brain, Behaviour and Immunity.
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When it comes to supporting gut health, it's a good idea to focus on both prebiotics and probiotics. Here's what you need to know.
What are prebiotics?
Many people are familiar with the health benefits of probiotics, but fewer people understand the role prebiotics play in maintaining a healthy gut.
Probiotics are live bacteria. Meanwhile, prebiotics are substances found in plants that the body cannot digest. The healthy bacteria in your gut—probiotics—use these substances as food.
And as the beneficial bacteria consume the prebiotic substances, they produce nutrients such as short-chain fatty acids that can offer health benefits in the digestive tract as well as throughout the body, according to Frontiers in Microbiology.
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(Here are the other differences between prebiotics vs. probiotics.)
Where do prebiotics come from?
Although all prebiotics are a form of fiber, not all fiber is a prebiotic.
Prebiotic substances come from plant sources, including vegetables, fruits, and complex carbohydrates, including grains such as oats. Just as there are multiple strains of probiotics, there are a variety of prebiotics as well.
"Prebiotics are broken into five known categories based on their structural characteristics and the byproducts they produce," explains registered dietitian nutritionist Grace Clark-Hibbs, owner of Nutrition with Grace.
These categories include fructans, galacto-oligosaccharides, resistant starch and glucose-derived oligosaccharides, oligosaccharides, and non-carbohydrate oligosaccharides, according to the journal Foods.
"Consuming a range of prebiotics is important in order to appeal to a wider variety of organisms and to reap the most benefits," Clark-Hibbs says.
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How do prebiotics affect the gut?
The main benefit that prebiotics offer to gut health is the nutrients they produce after they are metabolized.
"When prebiotics are metabolized by the microorganisms in your gut, they produce short-chain fatty acids as a byproduct, which provide a variety of benefits throughout the body," explains Clark-Hibbs.
These benefits range from supporting the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut to enhancing nutrient absorption, and reducing inflammation, according to a review in Nutrients.
"Prebiotics can enhance absorption of nutrients, in particular minerals like calcium, optimize digestion and metabolism, and reverse damage to the gut environment due to prolonged antibiotic use," says registered dietitian nutritionist Ilene Cohen, of PranaSpirit Nutrition & Wellness.
Benefits of eating prebiotic foods
Adding more prebiotic foods to your diet may benefit more than just your gut.
"As a form of dietary fiber, prebiotics may help you feel full at meals, promoting weight management," explains registered dietitian nutritionist Lacy Ngo, author of The Nourishing Meal Builder.
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In addition, diets rich in fiber can reduce the risk of many chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, she notes.
And the benefits don't come from fiber alone. Metabolizing prebiotics also produces short-chain fatty acids that can impact the entire body.
"These fatty acids are small enough to squeeze through the cells that make up your intestines and enter the bloodstream where they are able to provide health benefits to your immune system, mood, memory, and reduce overall inflammation," Clark-Hibbs says.
How much prebiotic food do we need each day?
It is apparent that eating more prebiotic-rich food can benefit health, but how much is enough?
"Currently, there is no official 'adequate intake' or 'recommended daily allowance', but the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) recommends at least 3 grams of prebiotics per day," explains Clark-Hibbs.
Although it can be hard to know exactly how much prebiotic fiber you take in each day, eating more fiber as a whole can be a good place to start.
"The recommended daily intake for fiber is 14 grams per every 1,000 calories consumed, or 28 grams of fiber for a 2,000 calories diet," Ngo says.
"If you eat this amount of fiber each day, you would be consuming an adequate amount of prebiotics."
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The best way to eat prebiotic foods
Since prebiotic research is still relatively new, there is not much data on the impact of food preparation on all forms of prebiotics. Although some studies suggest temperature can affect the level of prebiotics a food contains.
"One study found that when cooked white rice is cooled in refrigeration and reheated after 24 hours, it has a higher levels of the prebiotic fiber resistant starch than freshly cooked white rice," says Clark-Hibbs, referencing research in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
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And if you can avoid prolonged heat exposure to food sources of prebiotics, that may be beneficial as well. "Try not to overcook your fiber-rich foods, because heat can decrease the fiber content," explains Ngo.
When it comes to food sources of prebiotics, there are a few that stand out from the crowd. This is the best prebiotic food list, according to top nutrition experts.
Unripe (green) bananas
Although all bananas provide a source of fiber, it is the unripe, green bananas that are ideal for prebiotics.
"Unripe (green) bananas are a great source of resistant starch, and that acts as a soluble fiber passing through the digestive system undigested until it reaches the large intestine," Clark-Hibbs says. "Once in the large intestine, it acts as a fuel source for the good gut bugs that live there and may help reduce inflammation and protect against colorectal cancer."
If you are looking for a way to enjoy green bananas, try slicing them up and baking or frying them with a hint of salt for a crunchy, gut-friendly snack.
Oats provide a good source of fiber and whole grain, including the prebiotic fiber beta-glucan.
"The beta-glucan found in oats has a cholesterol-lowering benefit and may also help improve gut function," explains Cohen.
And the benefits of this fiber don't stop there. Clark-Hibbs adds that some research has found this fiber also boosts your immune system and protects against certain cancers.
Oats can be added into your diet in a number of ways, from using rolled oats in overnight oatmeal to swapping out refined flour in your favorite baked goods with oat flour instead.
If you love the taste of garlic, you are in luck.
"Garlic is high in the prebiotic inulin which has been shown to benefit overall digestion, diversify the gut microbiome, decrease fat accumulation, and improve appetite control," Clark-Hibbs says.
And gut health isn't the only benefit of adding more of this vegetable to your plate.
"Garlic has also been shown to help prevent diseases such as cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes," adds Clark-Hibbs.
Try adding garlic into your favorite sauces and marinades or even into salad dressing as an easy way to flavor your foods while boosting your intake of prebiotics at the same time.
If you want to add more prebiotics to your plate, focus on eating a variety of colors, such as the deep blue and purple color of blueberries.
"Blueberries are a wonderful prebiotic to include in your daily diet because they not only promote gut health, but also brain health as well," explains Ngo.
The polyphenols in blueberries act as a source of prebiotic, allowing them to provide anti-inflammatory benefits and cardiovascular benefits, especially in those with metabolic syndrome, according to the Journal of Functional Foods and the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Try adding blueberries into smoothies, on top of probiotic yogurt, or into salads as an easy way to boost your intake throughout the day.
If you want to promote gut health and improve sleep, consider adding tart cherries to your diet.
"Try eating tart cherries before bed for a source of prebiotic that also contain melatonin, which promotes a good night's sleep," explains Ngo.
Research in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry found the polyphenols in tart cherries act as a prebiotic and may positively impact the gut microbiome.
To enjoy the benefits this sour fruit can offer, try adding them into smoothies or a homemade trail mix or snacking on them alone.
If you are looking to boost your overall dietary fiber intake, lentils are an excellent choice providing eight grams of dietary fiber per 1/2 cup serving, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
As a source of multiple forms of prebiotics, including resistant starch and oligosaccharides, lentils may provide a variety of gut health benefits along with benefits for your entire body, per the journal New Phytologist.
"Lentils provide good quality plant-based protein and contain polyphenols which are helpful in reducing heart disease risk while being the easiest to digest of any legume," explains Cohen.
Try adding cooked lentils to soups, chili, or top of a salad for a protein and fiber rich nutrition boost.
This vegetable naturally contains the prebiotic fiber inulin, which has been found to aid digestive health while helping to maintain healthy blood glucose and insulin levels.
"Asparagus is an excellent source of antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin A and vitamins like folate and vitamin K that enhances bone health and minerals like iron and zinc," Cohen says.
Try adding asparagus into your diet by baking or grilling it as a delicious side dish. You can also chop and dice it to add into everything stir fry to pasta dishes.
Next, check out the best probiotic foods for your gut.
The same artery-clogging hydrogenated fats and oils (aka trans fats) that we are told to avoid for health reasons are also used as cheap vitamin fillers! That's just one filler to watch out for, warns Elissa Goodman, a holistic nutritionist in Los Angeles, CA. Another is magnesium Silicate (aka talc), which is used in supplements as a filler and anti-caking agent. (Anti-caking agents prevent lumps and bumps.) "Magnesium silicate is similar to asbestos in composition and can cause stomach and lung problems when inhaled or ingested," she says. Avoid these risky fillers by reading label. And "if you see any ingredients you're unfamiliar with, look them up," Goodman adds. Here are more vitamin myths you need to stop believing.
Nutritionists generally recommend getting the nutrients you need from food instead of supplements, and exposure to dyes is one of the reasons. Just like crayons, vitamins tend to come in an array of rich colors, "but there's really no legit benefit to having vitamins dyed a specific color, and these dyes have been linked to everything from allergies to behavior problems," Goodman says. They are only added to offset color loss from exposure to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture, and other conditions, or to enhance the appearance of the vitamin. In just one example of the risks, titanium dioxide, a color additive that makes tablets and capsules bright white, may cause lung, kidney and intestine inflammation, according to Goodman. The American College of Healthcare Sciences in Portland, OR, urges supplement takers to steer clear of these dangerous dyes: FD&C Blue No. 1, FD&C Blue No. 2, FD&C Green No. 3, FD&C Red No. 3, FD&C Red No. 40, FD&C Yellow No. 5, and FD&C Yellow No. 6.
"Color in natural foods is good. Color in your supplements—not so much," adds Boston-based nutritionist Dana Greene, RD.
Your "healthy" vitamins could be filled with contaminants. Omega-3 fatty acids are a popular choice among supplement takers looking to improve their heart health, but it's buyer beware when it comes to these pills. Fish can have dangerous levels of mercury, lead, and other contaminants that may make their way into fish oil supplements. Another favorite healthy supplement—cocoa powders, chocolates, and other products made from cacao beans—may be contaminated with high amounts of cadmium, according to a study by ConsumerLab.com in White Plains, NY.
And don't be fooled by the "organic" label stamped on the vitamin bottle either, says Tod Cooperman, MD, president of ConsumerLab.com. "We all put too much faith in this," he says. "They may not have used any pesticides, but there may just as much lead and other heavy metals in organic supplements as those not labeled organic." Goodman adds that you should "ensure your supplements are tested for contaminants like lead, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)." The label should offer guidance.
You can't believe everything you read—especially when it's written on vitamin labels, warns Dr. Cooperman. "Current labels are wrong because the daily value (DV) information on the panel was updated in July 2016, but manufacturers are given time to comply with the changes," he says. Labels won't be fully updated until July 2019. This may result in your getting too much or too little of a given nutrient. For example, if you are taking folic acid you may be getting as much as 70 percent more of this B vitamin than you need based on the older DV information. "There is an upper limit for folate from folic acid and we know that very high levels can cause kidney damage or mask vitamin B12 deficiency," he says. By contrast, relying on the DV for vitamin D could put you at risk for a shortfall of this vitamin's effects. The new DV for vitamin D is 800 milligrams (mg), but if an outdated label says the supplement has 100 percent of the DV, it provides markedly less than 800 mg, he says. "You can get yourself in a situation where you think you are doing their right thing and are really getting more or less than you want or need." Better safe than sorry. Check out the updated DVs, and make sure you know the telltale signs of a vitamin deficiency.
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You are not always getting what you think when you buy vitamins, Dr. Cooperman reveals. "Companies routinely put in up to 30 percent more than they claim on the label to make sure the vitamins remain potent through the date of expiration." Avoid this by looking for the "U.S. Pharmacopeia Verified" mark, which means that the quality, purity, and potency of the raw ingredients or finished products are verified by U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP). This stamp assures you that the product does, in fact, contain the ingredients listed on the label and that it has been made according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)'s Good Manufacturing Practices. USP maintains a list of verified products on its website. In particular, look out for these vitamins that are a waste of money and could be dangerous.
You can overdo it on nutrients, and labels won't give you that type of guidance, Dr. Cooperman says. Vitamin labels do not have to list Upper Tolerable Intake Level, and in some cases, this can put your health at risk. Adults who get more than 2,000 mg of vitamin C (the upper tolerable unit), for example, may set themselves up for diarrhea, stomach cramps, and nausea. Talk to your doctor about what you need and how best to get it. Don't fall for these other vitamin mistakes you don't realize you're making.
No vitamin, mineral, or supplement can say that it can treat, prevent, cure, or reverse any disease or condition, according to the FDA. If a claims sound too good to be true, it probably is. Buzz words to avoid on labels include "totally safe" or "no side effects," the FDA states. "As an RD, I prefer that my clients get the vitamins and minerals that they need from whole foods—not supplements," says Greene. "Supplements don't replace all of the nutrients and synergestic benefits found in whole foods." There is a place for supplements, she says: "When it comes to preventing risk for diseases, it's the big picture diet and lifestyle that matter most. There is no magic pill."
Dietary supplements and herbs are not wholly regulated by the FDA in the same manner as foods and drugs. Unlike drugs, dietary supplements do not need FDA approval before they are marketed. Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), vitamin manufacturers are essentially responsible for ensuring that a supplement is safe before it is marketed. The FDA can, however, take action against any supplement that is misbranded or misleading in its labelling. For these reasons, the FDA suggests contacting the manufacturer about the product they intend to purchase. Check out these 14 simple ways to make your vitamins more effective.