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The Symbiotics of Prebiotics and Probiotics

Chicory Root, a good source of prebiotics.

At this very moment you have about 400 living microorganisms living in your digestive tract. Some good, some not-so-good but for better or worse, they’re going to be there a while. The good ones help digest some foods, synthesize vitamins and build essential fatty acids.  They also maintain balance and help keep you regular.  Probiotics and prebiotics work together to improve your digestive health.

So what’s the difference?

Prebiotics:

  • They are non-digestible components of foods (they are not live organisms)
  • Are food for beneficial bacteria
  • Promote the growth of good bacteria in your digestive system
  • Contained naturally in foods.  Mostly, they’re in foods that Americans aren’t eating a lot of anymore (i.e. plant foods)
  • Good sources: tubers (like sweet potatoes and yams), soybeans, artichokes, chicory root, dandelion greens, garlic or leeks

Probiotics:

  • Live organisms found in foods
  • They help beneficial bacteria flourish and increase the number in your digestive tract
  • Promote the proliferation of good bacteria in your digestive system
  • Added to foods like yogurt, kefir or fermented vegetables.  Live active cultures are also added to buttermilk

How are they similar?  Well, you need both to get the benefits.  If your diet is missing fruits and vegetables (prebiotics) but you have plenty of probiotics, your bacteria won’t be fueled all that well.  Just like humans need energy, bacteria need energy too.  In the same vein, if you eat tons of fruits and vegetables but don’t eat foods with probiotics, you’ll have well-fueled bacteria but there won’t be many of them. 

This is a great example of why I support eating a variety of healthy foods rather than taking supplements.  Different compounds contained in foods work synergistically to improve health.  When you extract those compounds, isolate them, and then take pills, they’re not nearly as effective.  

Recent research indicates that prebiotics also help iron absorption (which is contained in leafy greens, like dandelion greens, etc).  So, it’s not a single symbiotic relationship but there are many compounds, minerals and vitamins that help our body absorb others.  So eat foods – made with ingredients grown in the ground or raised on a farm, not processed in a lab!

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