The Role of Prebiotics and Probiotics

By Joel Thuna

It seems as though everyone is talking about their health today. It is no surprise that with the pandemic we have all been enduring, emotional and immune health are often the focus of the conversation. The starting point for good health is “all in the gut”. Gut health is a hot topic, and prebiotics and probiotics seem to be at the center of the discussion. You may have heard these terms a million times. Do you know what role they each play in maintaining your healthy gut? 

The environment in your gut (called your gut microbiome) is a hostile one. It is made up of trillions (yes trillions) of bacteria, fungi and other microbes. Some of these microbes are good for you (probiotic) while other ones are bad for you (pathogenic). The probiotics are constantly fighting the pathogens for dominance, with your health as the outcome. This battle is a vital one as your gut plays a very important role in your digestive health, your immune system and your emotional health.

The link between gut health and digestive health is for many an obvious one. The gut is defined as the part of your gastrointestinal (GI) tract consisting of your small and large intestine. Your small intestine’s primary function is to break down food into nutrients and waste, and absorb water and digested nutrients into your bloodstream. Your large intestine’s primary job is to absorb water, minerals, and the remaining nutrients from your food. It turns waste into bowel movements. 

As your gut is where food breakdown, nutrient absorption and waste elimination occurs (essentially digestion) the link between gut health and digestion is a simple but strong one. Bad gut health impairs digestion, nutrient absorption and waste elimination – things that can have serious negative implications on your health.

The link between gut health and immune health is not so obvious. If your digestion is impaired, you won’t absorb the nutrients you need to have a healthy immune system, but there is so much more. 

Often people think of their immune systems as a bunch of cells somewhere in their body that attack foreign invaders to keep us healthy. A portion of your immune system seeks and destroys bad viruses, bacteria and fungi. Almost 70% of your immune system works this way (the part housed in your gut). This is where that battle between good (probiotic) and bad (pathogenic) takes place. 

Your gut and immune system support each other to keep you healthy. Healthy bacteria found in your gut are used to stimulate the development of immune T-cells, which are responsible for distinguishing your body’s cells and tissue from pathogens. This is vital to keep your immune system healthy and on track as opposed to attacking your own cells, weakening your immune system and leaving you open to infection and illness.

The link between gut health and emotional health is less obvious. When your digestion is impaired, you won’t absorb the nutrients you need to have good emotional health. But there is so much more going on.

Bacteria found in your gut perform multiple functions for you. They are part of millions of reactions and produce hundreds of neurochemicals that your body uses (and needs) to function. Your brain uses some of these neurochemicals to regulate basic physiological processes as well as mental processes such as learning, memory and mood. For example, gut bacteria manufacture about 95% of the body’s supply of serotonin, which influences mood (happiness, anxiety and depression), cognition, reward, learning, memory, sleep as well as GI activity (nausea and bowel function) .

An exciting field of study still in its infancy is that of the “gut-brain connection”. Your gut can link anxiety to stomach problems and vice versa. Have you ever had a “gut-wrenching” experience? Do certain situations make you “feel nauseous”? Have you ever felt “butterflies” in your stomach? Your gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotion. Anger, anxiety, sadness, elation — all of these feelings (and others) can trigger symptoms in your gut.

Your brain has a direct effect on your stomach and intestines. Just thinking about eating (before there is any food nearby) can cause your stomach to start secreting digestive juices. BUT the signaling goes both ways. Intestinal distress (heartburn, abdominal cramps, and loose stool) can be the cause of or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression. That’s because your brain and your gastrointestinal system are intimately connected. Any imbalance or distress in one can lead to distress and imbalance in the other.

You can help your gut health in many ways:

  1. Go Pro: Take probiotics each and every day. Probiotic strength is measured in CFU (Colony Forming Units). Here is where some knowledge comes in handy. There are literally thousands of probiotic species. The vast majority have never been tested for effectiveness and most are worthless. Many products tout high numbers; both CFU and number of species but high numbers of useless species are still useless. Choose probiotics that are the right (clinically researched species) at the right CFU. I recommend 1 species at a low, but clinically effective CFU (for example Bacillus Coagulans or Bacillus Subtillis at 1 billion CFU) over a 20 strain 50 billion CFU product with no evidence. With probiotics, more rarely means better and it may in fact mean worse.  Be sure to choose probiotics that are vegan, and don’t need to be refrigerated as they’ll last longer. If possible, buy organic as it is always cleaner. Food with added probiotics are good, but they don’t have enough CFU and usually aren’t stable enough to be of therapeutic value.  
  2. Go Pre: Prebiotics are specialty fibers that are the food for probiotics. They help keep both the probiotics you already have and the probiotics you are supplementing with healthy. Like probiotics, prebiotics should be taken daily (best if taken at the same time as probiotics). Ideally look for a daily vegan organic prebiotic + probiotic product. 
  3. Eat better: No need to be militaristic, instead be realistic. Every time you eat, it is a choice. You can choose the healthier option(s) or the unhealthier option(s). Try choosing healthier at least 75% of the time. Aim for more fresh fruits and vegetables; both more volume and more variety.
  4. Drink Better: Drink clean healthy water. If you don’t like the taste of plain water, add liquid greens chlorophyll. It gives your water a bit of flavour and some antioxidants without calories or artificial flavours.

Treat your gut as you would treat a good friend. Look out for its health and give it what it needs to be happy. You will be all the better with your happy healthy new friend.

Joel Thuna, MH, is a master herbalist with over 30 years of experience.