Probiotics and Prebiotics: How to Boost Belly Health

When it comes to bettering belly health, you need both probiotics and prebiotics. Here's how they benefit your body and the best places to find them.

Woman eating yogurt at her kitchen

It seems like almost everyone is promoting probiotic pills, downing yogurt, and fermenting their foods these days. These healthy “bugs” which have been used to preserve cuisine for centuries have made a righteous return.

From deflating belly bloat to mellowing our minds, probiotics and prebiotics seem to be the hottest helpers for an enormous amount of ailments. 

We’ll dive into the depths of digestion to explore the difference between probiotics and prebiotics, their benefits, and the best foods to find them.

Digestive wellness: the second brain 

Have you ever felt butterflies in your stomach when you get nervous about an upcoming event? Or a gut intuition nudging you to take a certain path in life?

The stomach is sometimes referred to as the “second brain.” This is because it communicates directly to your mind and the rest of your body. Keeping our gut healthy is essential for overall health and wellbeing. 

Healthy digestion is also important because your body needs nutrients from food and beverages to function properly and stay healthy. The digestive system breaks down nutrients into smaller parts which can be absorbed and used as energy (1). 

Balancing and supporting healthy bacteria found in the gut is one of the best ways to encourage good digestion and overall well being. 

Microbiome: healthy gut bacteria  

Housed deep in the depths of our digestive system is a community of bacteria. Some may act like our besties while others mightay fight against us. Just like any well functioning community, the goal is to create and maintain harmony. 

The microbiome includes bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live on and inside your body, mainly the gut. Good bacteria help digest food, regulate the immune system, protect against other bacteria that may cause harm, and even produce vitamins (vitamins B12, thiamine, riboflavin, vitamin K) which are helpful for energy and metabolism (2)

This unique colony of healthy bacteria is partially determined by your family and upbringing, environment, whether or not you were breastfed, stress level, medication history, and diet (3). 

Incorporating probiotic-rich foods and prebiotic foods help recruit more of the helpful bacteria, while lifestyle factors such as drinking and eating excess sugar and processed foods could harm your protective troops. 

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are living microorganisms (the good bacteria) which we get from fermented and cultured foods. These have been suggested to be beneficial for our immune system, supply some antioxidants and vitamins, and even possibly improve mental health and mood (4). 

Fermentation is the natural process of healthy bacteria and yeast breaking down sugars or starch in food. It’s typically used to preserve foods but also contributes beneficial bacteria to our tummies. 

Probiotic foods include:

  • Cultured milk and plain yogurt 
  • Tempeh
  • Miso
  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha
  • Kefir
  • Sauerkraut (5) 

Beer, wine, and cider are also fermented, however the alcohol in these beverages brings more disadvantages than benefits for the overall health. To reduce the risk of alcohol-related harm, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends drinking in moderation: up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men (6). 

Do you need a probiotic supplement?

There are numerous types of probiotics and many are still getting discovered. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium types have been reported to be the most beneficial (7). These are commonly found in probiotic supplements. However, these are also naturally found in probiotic foods such as yogurt. When it comes to probiotics, fermented and cultured food is the best option - since they bring many other good things such as dietary fibers, vitamins & minerals. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t have the authority to review supplements for safety and effectiveness before they make their way to your local store (8). Therefore it’s important to check with your doctor or dietitian before giving them a go. 

What are prebiotics?

Prebiotics are types of dietary fiber found in plant-based foods. These fibers are not digestible by humans, but the healthy gut bacteria break them down and use them as their sources of fuel. They also stimulate the growth and activity of the good bacteria in the gut. 

Most fruits, vegetables and legumes (beans and lentils) contain some prebiotics (dietary fibers). Here are some that have a high amount prebiotic that will benefit the gut bacteria: 

  • Asparagus
  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Whole wheat 
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Chicory 
  • Banana
  • Oats 

Keep in mind that a possible byproduct of the friendly bacteria munching on these fibers is gas and bloating. It can be helpful to go slow as you start to include prebiotic-rich foods (if you don’t ready include them on a daily basis) in your diet and stay hydrated

Need help remembering to drink water? Try a water tracking app for reminders and accountability. 

Boost bacteria for better health 

The balance of your gut bacteria can be thrown out of whack due to lifestyle factors and a low-quality diet. To help support these friendly “bugs” in bettering your health, focus on a variety of dietary fiber containing whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables as well as fermented and cultured foods. 

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