A recent NPR article helped shed some light on a fascinating new field of scientific inquiry, namely how important our microbe population is to keeping us healthy and alive. We are rapidly coming to understand that we cannot live with our microbes, the trillions of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes that live in and on our bodies.
These microbes live on our skin and in our guts. They live in our noses and in the mucus our body uses to protect itself. Scientists featured in the article report that our bodies are home to 10 times more microbial cells than bodily cells. Their numbers are so staggering that as much as 99% of the genes in (and on) our bodies are microbes’ genes and not our own. But it is a mistake to think of these microbes as foreign. They are as much a part of what makes us “us” as the color of our eyes and our genetic inheritance.
Me and My Microbiome
Scientists are calling your microbiome, which includes the critical balance of healthy bacteria in the gut, the 11th organ system because of its many functions. Your microbiome:
- Supports healthy digestion and immunity from your center, your gut
- Shapes the way your immune system handles invaders by “teaching” the body which microbes are healthy and which aren’t from birth
- Contributes to how much fat you store and how much energy you have
- Signals the brain to impact your mood and behavior
The NPR article went on to reveal that Americans are at a microbial disadvantage due to the inundation of antibiotics in our society. We are exposed to a smaller pool of microbes and so our microbiomes are less diverse. A diverse microbiome is a strong microbiome that may be able to handle health challenges more effectively.
Remembering that our microbiome is such a pervasive part of our health is key. Not all microbes are germs to be avoided at all costs, and you need healthy microbes such as beneficial bacteria to stay healthy.
Source: “Staying Healthy May Mean Learning to Love our Microbiomes” NPR blog, July 2013
By now many of you have heard about the remarkable health benefits of probiotics. In fact, the good-for-you bacteria seem to be making headlines everywhere these days—especially as we head into another cold and flu season. And as awareness increases about just how good probiotics are for optimal digestion and immunity, there’s another “p” word you might be wondering about: prebiotics.
In technical terms, prebiotics are often defined as “non-digestible food ingredients” that promote the growth of healthy bacteria in the digestive tract. So what does that mean? Quite simply, prebiotics are a food source for probiotics. So as they travel through the digestive system, they nourish all those good bacteria along the way and help them grow and multiply. The result? More good bacteria in the gut, which means better digestion and a stronger natural defense system.
So where do prebiotics come from? Well, mostly from soluble fiber sources such as oats, legumes, flax and almonds—and that’s where the “non-digestible” part comes into play. Dietary fiber—including both soluble fiber and insoluble fiber—really just refers to the parts of plant foods that our bodies are unable to digest and absorb, which is why it’s sometimes called “roughage”. Because prebiotics are not digested, they remain in the digestive tract where they can do their job of feeding their probiotic partners.
In addition to obtaining prebiotics through the diet, nowadays many probiotic supplements will actually include prebiotics to help you get the benefit of this dynamic duo (i.e. probiotics and prebiotics). For example, you may see something called FOS on the label. Short for fructooligosaccharide, FOS is extracted from soluble fiber foods such as chicory root and will help to feed and stimulate the growth of beneficial probiotic bacteria such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli.
So there you have it! Two powerful “p” words that can go a long way toward better digestion and a stronger natural immune system—talk about a winning combination!
Prebiotic Food Sources:
- Chicory Root
- Whole Grains