Have you ever claimed the “five-second rule” after food fell on the floor? If so, science may be on your side. Emerging research about the importance of dietary microorganisms shows that sometimes it’s okay to eat a few germs. Our very survival and evolution as a species have been contingent upon our symbiotic relationship with certain microorganisms.
At Hudson Medical + Wellness, we are keenly interested in every tool at our disposal when it comes to enhancing your wellbeing. That’s why we’re paying close attention to the role of prebiotics and probiotics in functional health. Here is a primer on these special microbial populations, the theories behind them, and how they may be integrated into a healthy lifestyle.
Even though it is strange to consider, at any given moment your body is teeming with microorganisms. Scientists at the Human Microbiome Project, an arm of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), estimate that more than 10,000 species of microbes live in the human ecosystem. Bacteria live on your skin, in your gut, in your mouth, and in many other places. These little creatures have evolved right along with us, throughout millennia, and we generally live in synchrony together.
While we have co-existed with microorganisms for thousands of years, we may have recently strained our relationship with our microbes. A concept is known as the “hygiene hypothesis” notes that the introduction of vaccines and sanitization practices in the 20th century eradicated many noxious infectious diseases, but it also may have promoted a sharp rise in allergic and autoimmune diseases such as asthma, allergies, eczema, type 1 diabetes, and inflammatory bowel disease.
Researchers believe that, because we are generally exposed to fewer microbes during childhood than our ancestors were, our immune systems are not adequately primed to defend against outside invaders. Instead, our immune cells sometimes go haywire and begin attacking “self” cells. To add evidence to the hygiene hypothesis, studies of big families and households that live closely with animals (both factors that may lead to less-than-pristine environments) have shown dramatically lower rates of allergic and autoimmune conditions.
We generally live in harmony with our microbes, but when our microbial balance becomes disturbed or threatened—which typically happens when we take an antibiotic—we can experience illness. An example of this is the condition of candida/yeast overgrowth; many people will experience a yeast infection after taking a course of antibiotics because their good bacteria gets eliminated right along with the bad, creating a void that quickly becomes occupied by yeast.
Many researchers believe another example of this is the potentially lethal condition that can result from an infection with the bacteria known as Clostridium difficile (C.diff). This diarrheal illness often results from excessive exposure to antibiotics, which kill off the normal flora of the gut and allow for the invasion of pathological C.diff bacteria. Interestingly, this condition can be successfully treated with a process known as a fecal transplant, which recolonizes an affected person’s gut with friendly bacteria that can do the work of pushing out unwelcome C.diff intruders.
What Are Probiotics and Prebiotics?
To harness the power of microorganisms, health researchers are turning more and more to the field of probiotics and prebiotics. You have likely heard these terms before, but it is helpful to distinguish between the two:
- A probiotic is a living microorganism that can aid your body’s cells with certain processes, such as digesting food, synthesizing certain vitamins (such as biotin and Vitamin K), or pushing out harmful invaders.
- A prebiotic is a probiotic’s food—it is an indigestible fiber that feeds your live-in bacteria, but that you cannot break down and use yourself.
Both probiotics and prebiotics support your metabolic processes, but prebiotics do so indirectly.
What Are Common Sources of Prebiotics and Probiotics?
One of the most common sources of probiotics is yogurt. Most yogurt products will list the specific probiotic organisms that they contain, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus. Other rich sources of probiotics include fermented foods, such as:
- Sourdough bread
Prebiotics are dietary fibers that feed your healthy gut bacteria. The following foods contain prebiotic elements:
- Dandelion greens
- Chicory root
By incorporating more probiotic and prebiotic foods into your diet, you can reap the benefits of friendly bacteria, including optimizing your metabolic processes and enhancing your immunity. Some specific medical conditions can be improved through the use of prebiotics and probiotics.
What Conditions May Be Improved by Prebiotics and Probiotics?
Researchers are studying prebiotics and probiotics and how they can influence certain medical conditions. While many other conditions likely can be improved by restoring a balance of healthy microorganisms in your gut, some of the more promising uses include the management of the following issues:
- Antibiotic-associated diarrhea
- Ulcerative colitis
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Type 2 diabetes
- Small intestinal overgrowth syndrome (SIBO)
- Colorectal cancer prevention
- Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
At Hudson Medical + Wellness, our functional medicine providers are highly trained to work with you to help you repair your digestive function and cultivate healthy gut flora. By optimizing your gut microbiota, you can manage any present microbe-related illnesses and potentially prevent future illnesses as well.
How to Integrate Prebiotics and Probiotics Into Your Wellness Plan
Everyone in the modern world can benefit from eating foods that are rich in probiotics and prebiotics. However, if you have a history of multiple antibiotic prescriptions, or you suffer from frequent yeast infections or digestive issues, you may especially benefit from increasing probiotics and prebiotics in your diet.
You can introduce probiotics and prebiotics into your wellness plan solely through nutritional means, or through supplements, or by a combination of both. However, before initiating probiotics or prebiotics on your own, it is important to consult with a medical provider who is well-versed in functional wellness to make sure you are doing so safely and optimally. To learn more about our functional wellness program, schedule a consultation today.
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