To Your Health
January, 2009 (Vol. 03, Issue 01)
By Joe Leonard
With outbreaks of E. coli
reported in the news on a near-weekly basis, you might be surprised to learn that not all bacteria is bad.
In fact, your intestines are literally brimming with thousands of species of bacteria that actually provide a variety of important health benefits.
It sounds somewhat disturbing, but there are many types of bacteria that are essential to good human health. Humans co-evolved with beneficial intestinal bacteria, and we live in a symbiotic relationship with them. The intestinal environment is a perfect habitat for bacteria; they have a constant supply of food, warmth and moisture. In return, the "good bacteria" provide us with valuable health benefits including the following:
- They are a source of important nutrients like vitamin K and short-chain fatty acids.
- They secrete factors that fight pathogenic microbes.
- They boost immunity.
- They aid in absorption of minerals like calcium, iron and magnesium.
- They reduce the amount of toxic and carcinogenic substances in the gut.
- They promote colon health.
Most of these microbes live in a harmonious balance with each other and with us much of the time. However, sometimes this balance is disrupted by factors such as stress, antibiotic therapy or poor diet. Populations of good bacteria may decrease or disappear, depriving the intestine of the benefits they provide and often leading to overgrowth of pathogenic microbes that can then do us harm.
Prebiotics and probiotics help restore and sustain a healthy microbial balance. They have a long history of safe consumption without any major harmful side effects to human health. Let's take a closer look at these healthy bacteria and the benefits they provide.
Prebiotics: Fermentable Fiber
If you eat a healthy, whole-food diet with lots of fiber-rich fruits, vegetables and nuts, you are consuming prebiotics all the time. They occur commonly in many plant foods such as onions, bananas, wheat, artichokes, garlic, almonds, and other whole foods. The beneficial bacteria thrive when we eat many of these foods. This is part of the reason why eating a fruit- and vegetable-rich diet is so beneficial to health.
Although prebiotics are often equated with "fiber," not all fiber is prebiotic. Prebiotics are specifically nondigestible, fermentable fibers that promote the growth and activity of beneficial intestinal bacteria. Humans cannot digest prebiotic fiber from food directly, but it can be consumed (or fermented) by the beneficial microbes. These bacteria, primarily species of Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus, digest the fiber and produce byproducts with various health benefits.
For healthy people, eating a healthy fruit- and vegetable-rich diet can provide ample prebiotics to support long-term health. The problem is that some people are not healthy, and many people don't eat as many nutritious foods as they should to stay healthy. This is where supplementation with prebiotics may be beneficial.