Gut health has been a huge area in research over the past decade. And rightly so – gut health can greatly influence overall health. A healthy gut microbiome, which consists of the trillions of microbes lining your digestive tract, has far-reaching benefits to the human body beyond just the gut, impacting the health of your immune system, urinary tract, cardiovascular system, and even weight management.
Two common supplements used to support gut health are probiotics and prebiotics. Since they are such similar sounding words, one might easily get confused between the two. Let’s define both before we dig into how to use prebiotics.
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that you can consume via fermented foods or supplements that can support balance in your gut microbiome, which is teeming with trillions of microorganisms including bacteria and yeasts. Research suggests that probiotics do not colonize the gut, meaning they don’t stick around in the gut forever. But this does not mean that they are not useful. In fact, numerous studies demonstrate that probiotics provide worthy benefits during their temporary stay in the gut.
Prebiotics, on the other hand, are types of non-digestible fibers and other food ingredients that are highly fermentable by gut bacteria, meaning these fibers act as food for bacteria. So while prebiotics do not act as direct nutrition for humans, they are helpful in aiding the growth of good bacteria in your gut.
The most direct way that prebiotics benefit your health is through serving as food for the growth of good bacteria in the gut. These bacteria impact intestinal functions like metabolism and strength of the intestinal lining, which is a major interface between the outside world and the internal environment in your body. Prebiotic fibers can also support occasional bloating and digestive discomfort.
Certain gut bacteria can produce short chain fatty acids when breaking down prebiotics. These compounds can be utilized by cells of the gut lining to support their strength and health. Short chain fatty acids can also enter the bloodstream to positively impact other systems of the body as well.
Like the gut, the urinary tract has a microbiome with various types of bacteria. Promoting the growth of healthy gut bacteria through the consumption of prebiotics can also support your urinary tract as well.
Consuming prebiotics can boost immune function by increasing the levels of protective bacteria and other microorganisms. These healthy microbes can help stimulate secretion of immune molecules.
If you experience occasional bloating, prebiotic supplementation may be a good fit for you. Prebiotics may help support healthy bowel movements which can make for a more comfortable gut. However, be sure to take it slow when adding a prebiotic supplement or prebiotic-rich foods into your routine, as prebiotics can actually cause bloating, cramping, and gas at certain doses. You want to give your gut microbiome time to adjust to the changes in levels of gut bacteria.
The molecular length of prebiotic fibers may impact tolerance. Some prebiotics with shorter chain length, such as inulin, may produce more of these side effects. Longer chain prebiotic fibers, on the other hand, may be better tolerated since they may not ferment as quickly in the colon or large intestine.
You can also consider whether or not your current eating pattern contains prebiotic rich foods. Foods rich in prebiotics include garlic, onions, mushrooms, apples, asparagus, and beans. If your eating pattern is lacking in prebiotic-rich foods, you can try gradually incorporating more of them into your eating pattern or consider taking a prebiotic fiber supplement.
Gut health and healing is a complex process, so you may want support from a doctor or registered dietitian specializing in gut health who can help you determine if prebiotics are right for you. There are sometimes reasons to hold off on increasing prebiotic intake until gut microbiome balance can be established in other ways.
Taking prebiotics may also be a good option for you if you want to boost your immune function. With about 70% of your immune system housed in your gut and microbiome, most people can benefit from prebiotics.
Care/of’s Prebiotic Plus supplement can help ease bloating and balance good bacteria in the gut. These capsules are made with PreforPro® prebiotic blend and acacia and blueberry powder to support healthy bowel movements.
There is no particular best time of day to take a prebiotic supplement. Most studies have looked at the benefit of daily prebiotic use without specifying time of day. However, research shows that, similar to humans, gut bacteria also follow a circadian rhythm, a cyclical pattern by which the body is active by day and resting at night. In a bidirectional feedback relationship, the timing of your eating patterns greatly influence gut bacteria, which in turn impacts your immune system and metabolism. In a sense, when you eat, your gut bacteria eat.
During sleep, your body gets the chance to focus on repair. Eating at night may disrupt sleep since it requires the digestive system to be actively digesting when it otherwise would be significantly less active overnight. Although there is no direct research on the use of prebiotics at night, it might make sense to avoid taking prebiotics before bed, especially since prebiotics are best taken with food. This may give your gut bacteria a chance to fast from the feeding that occurs during the daytime when you eat.
We recommend taking a prebiotic supplement with food. This mimics the same way in which you would consume prebiotic fibers naturally occuring in some foods. Plan to take prebiotic supplements at the same time as a meal.
You can definitely take prebiotics and probiotics together, and we actually recommend you do so. Prebiotics and probiotics work synergistically with one another and complement each other’s role in your digestive system, with prebiotics supporting the survival of probiotic bacteria. Probiotics act like “guardians of your gut,” while prebiotics support the rise of more of these healthy “guardians.”
You should take prebiotics away from medication to avoid any potential disruptions with absorption. Wait at least 2 hours before or after taking medication before taking your prebiotic. Since prebiotics stay in the gut and resist absorption, they may decrease the absorption of medication when taken together. Always talk to your doctor or pharmacist about specific instructions.
Gut bacteria are like humans in the sense that they need a consistent supply of food to function optimally. Keep consistent with consuming prebiotic supplements or prebiotic-rich foods to maintain gut bacterial balance and reap the healthy benefits.
The benefits of prebiotics can begin to take effect within hours of consuming prebiotics, once the prebiotics reach the large intestine. However, you might not notice the benefits until after at least 2 weeks of consistently taking the supplement. Levels of bacteria in the gut microbiome take time to adjust and rebalance. Most studies have demonstrated beneficial results from prebiotic consumption taken consistently for at least two to eight weeks.
If you feel any negative side effects when taking a prebiotic, like gas or bloating that lasts for several days, consider stopping the prebiotic or reducing the amount to a tolerated level.
Prebiotics can be a stellar option for anyone looking to improve their gut health. Opt to take a prebiotic supplement with food. You can also take prebiotics along with your probiotics to boost the beneficial effects of the probiotic bacteria. Assess your tolerance to the amount of prebiotic and consider starting slow and gradually increasing your dose. There’s no current data to recommend a perfect time of day to take prebiotics. The best thing you can do is to keep consistent in taking your prebiotic to see the results.