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Why Your Probiotic Needs a Prebiotic Partner

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You're already on the probiotics train, right? With the power to improve digestion, blood sugar levels, and your immune system, they've become a kind of daily multivitamin for many people. But do you know about the power of prebiotics? Prebiotics are dietary fibers that benefit the balance and growth of bacteria in the colon, so you can think of them as probiotic's energy source or fertilizer. They help the bacteria from probiotics grow so your body can better tap into their health benefits, says Anish A. Sheth, M.D., a gastroenterologist and author of What's Your Poo Telling You? Together, they're more powerful than probiotics alone.

The Healthy Gut Bacteria Phenomenon

Probiotics have stolen the spotlight in recent years, leading to a full-on obsession with healthy gut bacteria. (Learn more about Probiotics: The Friendly Bacteria.) Sheth says it all started when people realized the dangers of the Standard American Diet (S.A.D.), which is high in sugar and saturated fat and low in fiber.

"One thing that's resulted in is an epidemic of unhealthy bacteria living in our colons, and that creates a lot of issues ranging from gas and bloating to things like metabolic syndrome, obesity, and cardiovascular disease," explains Sheth. To counter these negative effects, you've probably loaded up on fermented foods like yogurt and kimchi to give our bodies the healthy bacteria they need to fight off the bacteria enemies—and science says it works! But more recently, researchers have set out to explore how your body can take this one step further. Enter: prebiotics.

The Difference Between Prebiotics and Probiotics

"I like to think probiotics are like the grass seed for growing a healthy lawn, and prebiotics are like a healthy fertilizer that you sprinkle to help grow the grass," says Sheth. That hypothetical lawn represents your colon, and when specific strains of probiotics and prebiotics are ingested (or sprinkled on the lawn) together, that's when the magic happens. "The combination of getting them together leads to even greater health benefits," he says.

Those benefits include calming stomach issues like gas, bloating, and diarrhea and reducing some of the more serious problems like obesity and heart disease, he adds. "There is some initial data to show we can counteract some of the effects of metabolic syndrome and reverse some of those issues just by giving [the body] healthy bacteria," he says. Other research has found that prebiotics may also help slash your levels of the stress hormone cortisol and act as anti-anxiety aids, according to a study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

How You Can Up Your Prebiotic Intake

Exact recommendations as to how often you should take prebiotics and in what combinations with probiotics are still being determined. It'll likely be five years or so before we know specifics and can offer a treatment of sorts, says Sheth. "The prebiotic story is probably where we were with probiotics 15 or 20 years ago," he explains. As far as food sources of prebiotics, right now we know that you can find these bacteria in foods like artichokes, onions, green bananas, chicory root, and leeks, he says. (For cooking ideas, check out these Surprising New Ways to Eat More Probiotics.)

Pick a few of these foods up next time you hit the grocery store and toss them into salads and stir-fries or consider taking a supplement like Culturelle Digestive Health Probiotic Capsules, which contains both prebiotics and probiotics—10 billion active probiotic cultures of Lactobacillus GG and the prebiotic Inulin, to be exact. Not all supplements are created equal, so if you're looking to address specific digestive symptoms or distress, be sure to discuss them with your doctor before charting a course of action.

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