The relationship of prebiotics with human health has been an area of increasing interest recently. Prebiotics are a group of nutrients that are degraded by the gut microbiota. They can feed the microbiota and their degradation products are short-chain fatty acids that are released into the blood circulation, which affects not only the gastrointestinal tracts but also other organs.
There are two important groups of prebiotics with remarkable benefits on human health, namely Fructo-oligosaccharides and galactooligosaccharides. Since low quantities of these two nutrients naturally exist in food, researchers and scientists are attempting to produce this prebiotic on an industrial scale. They seem to be a fascinating candidate promoting human health conditions because of their health benefits, safety, and the production and storage advantages as compared to probiotics.
Understanding the role of Prebiotics.
Several types of microorganisms called gut microbiota, are inhabitants of the human gastrointestinal system. The resident microbial groups of these organisms in the stomach, small intestine, and large intestine are crucial for human health. The majority of these microorganisms live in the large intestine.
Some endogenous factors like mucin secretion can affect the microbial balance of the gut. The human diet is the chief source of energy for their growth. Non-digestible carbohydrates can highly modify the composition and the function of gut microbiota. Prebiotics are classified as these non-digestible food ingredients that are fermented by probiotics to obtain their survival energy from degrading the indigestible binds. They are used to increase the population of healthy bacteria, aid digestion and enhance the production of valuable vitamins.
Prebiotics Vs. Probiotics.
Prebiotics are non-living, non-digestible fibers that work in the gut, feeding the good gut bacteria such as bifidobacteria and lactobacilli and encourage them to grow. Whereas, Probiotics are live, active bacteria such as bifidobacteria and lactobacilli that enter the gut by ingesting foods and supplements. As they are live bacteria, they can be affected by heat and acidity and can be destroyed on their way to the large intestine.
Prebiotics can be found in carbohydrates and fruit and vegetables and increase the friendly bacteria in the gut, without feeding bad microorganisms or pathogens. Prebiotics can be added to any food as they are resistant to heat, oxygen, stomach acids and enzymes. When ingested, they reach the lower gut intact and selectively nourish the good bacteria once there. On the other hand, Probiotic bacteria are live strains of bacteria that are found in fermented foods. Probiotic bacteria must be kept alive and must also reach the gut in sufficient numbers. Those reaching the lower gut must compete with over 1,000 bacterial species.
Sources of Prebiotics.
Prebiotics naturally exist in some dietary food products, such as asparagus, beet, sugar, garlic, onion, chicory, Jerusalem artichoke, honey, wheat, barley, banana, rye, tomato, soybean, milk, beans, and peas. Recently, prebiotics was found in seaweed and microalgae too. Because of its low concentration in food, prebiotics is manufactured on an industrial scale. Some companies produce prebiotics using lactose, sucrose, and salt as raw material.
Prebiotic supplements can be taken regularly to boost the growth of good bacteria. These supplements contain fermentable fiber to supply food to the existing bacteria in the gut, known as lactobacilli and bifidobacteria.
The prebiotic supplements differ from the probiotic supplements as they are not live bacteria, are highly stable and are unaffected by acidity and heat. It is important to note that all prebiotics are not the same and some are more targeted towards the type of bacteria they feed.
Health Benefits and Side Effects.
The health benefits of prebiotics are linked to the benefits of probiotics. Probiotics support a healthy gut, offering better digestive health, fewer health problems and other benefits including improved mental health and immune system.
Some researchers suggest that prebiotics may affect the body by improving the calcium absorption, changing how quickly the body can process carbohydrates and supporting the probiotic growth of the gut bacteria, potentially enhance digestion and metabolism, two of the most important functions of the human body.
Currently, no evidence suggests taking prebiotics and probiotics together. People who have chronic diseases or serious illness should avoid probiotic and prebiotic supplements unless advised by a doctor.
A promising future for Prebiotics.
Most studies on prebiotic health benefits have only focused on gut health to date. Health conditions like IBS, inflammatory bowel diseases, antibiotic-associated and traveler’s diarrhea are attracting attention and the development of various solutions. Prebiotics, however, have the ability to affect the system even outside the gut. Mineral absorption is one of the best-established physiological functions of prebiotics, as they can increase the bone mineral calcium and bone mineral density. Long term studies show that prebiotic consumption in the early years results in reduced chances of osteoporosis.
Recent data also shows that prebiotics can reduce systemic inflammations and impact the blood glucose responses, suggesting their utility to manage type 2 diabetes. They also play a role in weight management, which means they can be incorporated in weight-loss diets and supplements specially meant for weight watchers.
Another potential area that shows promise for the future is influencing the brain function through prebiotic consumption. Prebiotics that have an impact on the brain have been termed as “psychobiotics”. Early research suggests that these might be responsible for inducing sleep and eliminating stress and anxiety. The research is in its initial stage, but positive results could make a significant impact on people’s lives.