Just when we have our head around something new, the health experts add another layer of information which can throw us right back at ground zero. This can be said about the probiotic and prebiotic conundrum! Microorganisms that inhabit the human body, on the skin, in the gut, in the mouth, behind the ears, up the bum, just about everywhere - outnumber all other human cells by about 10 to 1. Because of their tiny size they only amount to about 3 percent of our total body mass, roughly 2kg for the average adult. Despite being microscopic, they contribute to the health status of every part of the body either directly or indirectly through their activity, so much so that the collective microbiome is increasingly viewed by scientists as an organ in its own right.
According to research from the Human Microbiome Project (HMP) in 2014, which is a collaborative research project involving more than 80 universities and scientific institutions from around the globe, there are more than 10,000 different species living inside us. This is the first time that researchers have mapped the quantity and species of microorganisms inhabiting the bodies of healthy humans. According to HMP Co-ordinator, James M. Anderson, M.D., Ph.D “We now have a very good idea of what is normal for a healthy Western population and are beginning to learn how changes in the microbiome correlate with physiology and disease.” The application of this research will be far-reaching – now that we understand what the normal human microbiome looks like, we should be able to understand how changes in the microbiome are associated with, or even cause, illnesses.
Not all fibre is equal when it comes to prebiotics. Researchers have pinpointed the ideal menu for gut bacteria which differs from what we hosts consider appetizing. Inulin, fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), betaglucans, resistant starch and pectin are just some of the fibres that send probiotics into seventh heaven! Jerusalem artichoke, chicory root, dandelion leaves are the richest sources of inulin, followed by garlic, onion and leeks. This inulin fibre helps to increase the number and diversity of beneficial bacteria in the gut. Oats, barley and mushrooms are great sources of betaglucans, which also improve population numbers and variety of species. Betaglucans act as anti-viral agent in the upper respiratory tract and are effectively recommended for cold and flu viruses. Early studies of betaglucans’ efficacy against Covid-19 is hopeful too, providing protection from Covid-19 and less severity of symptoms. Probiotics consume pectin, found in apples, to produce a short chain fatty acid called butyric acid which improves the health of the intestinal lining in which they reside. These short chain fatty acids help regulate electrolyte balance including sodium, magnesium, calcium and water levels. They are anti-inflammatory compounds and are involved proper digestion and bowel movements.
Other prebiotic foods include beans and legumes, flaxseeds, burdock root, wheat bran and seaweeds. Sauerkraut is a perfect example of the relationship between probiotics and prebiotics. The juice from shredded or bruised raw cabbage leaves provide the prebiotic fibre for Lactobacilli bacteria (found on raw cabbage leaves) to multiply and flourish. As they increased in number, they continue digesting the cabbage leaves until the leaves are completely fermented. At the end of the process the volume of beneficial bacteria present is enough to preserve the sauerkraut and keep away harmful bacteria that would otherwise spoil it. This was the one of the original methods of preserving food and provided humans with a great source of probiotics as a bonus.
The Human Microbiome Project is ongoing and will provide invaluable preventative measures and treatment options for disease in years to come. In the meantime, roll out your intestinal red carpet and welcome some good bacteria into your body. Make them feel welcome and encourage them to stay long-term, enticing them with the food they love, the company of others and a well-maintained home to call their own.