Fiber, essential for gastric motility and overall good health, is important as it helps prevent irregularity, cancer, and heart disease. Some forms of fiber cause excessive bloating and discomfort, such as cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. However, fiber found in prebiotics, a form of soluble fiber found in specific foods, offers all the benefits of fiber, without the bloating. According to the Mayo Clinic, “prebiotics are non-digestible nutrients that are used as an energy source by certain beneficial bacteria [probiotics] that live in your intestines.” Available in a variety of foods, including artichokes, tomatoes, berries, bananas, chickory, barley, dairy foods, garlic, flax, Swiss chard, kale, honey, leeks, legumes, onions, wheat and oatmeal, prebiotics are easily included in most diets. Prebiotics are also available in supplement form.
Prebiotics have many uses, including treatment of antibiotic-associated diarrhea, relieving the pain and bloating from gastroenteritis and colitis, alleviating bowel irregularities, and helping to ease the uncomfortable symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Prebiotics are also used to enhance immune function and promote calcium absorption along the intestinal tract.
Prebiotic vs. Probiotic
Prebiotics and probiotics work closely together in the gut. Prebiotics prepare the intestine for inhabitation of probiotics, or "friendly bacteria," and are vital to protect the body from harmful microbes. Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium, the most common probiotics, are naturally found in enriched yogurt, fermented and unfermented milk, miso, a fermented mixture of rice, barley, and soybeans, tempeh made from soy, some juices, and soy beverages.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “some research has shown that probiotics can decrease gas, pain and bloating associated with irritable bowel syndrome. Certain probiotics can also decrease the time it takes for food to move through the intestine.” Prebiotics and probiotics work together in the gastro-intestinal tract to help alleviate these symptoms, and the result is less discomfort for the patient living with irritable bowel syndrome or bowel irregularities.
Prebiotics are also called inulin and oligosaccharides, and fructoligosaccharides are the most common. Found in fruit, these sugar chains work to prepare the intestinal environment for probiotics, friendly bacteria vitally important to immune function. Though prebiotics are naturally and easily found in common foods, supplements have been found to provide a more concentrated source, according to the University of Maryland.
More medical research is needed to fully assess the risks and benefits of prebiotics and probiotics, and it is important to consult a physician before taking supplements, as some risks have been noted. Particularly of concern are patients with weakened immune systems. Also, patients with an artificial heart valve may be at risk of developing an infection. One case of severe allergic reaction, anaphylaxis, has been reported with prebiotic use. As for dosages, patients should avoid taking more than 2 billion Lactobacillus acidophilus colony-forming units (CFU) per day as gastric upset and diarrhea may occur. Studies indicate that intake of prebiotics should not exceed 8 g per day.