To stay well, the non-negotiables are good sleep, frequent movement and stress reduction – but they’re not the whole picture. The 4th foundational pillar of good health is your food. Think fresh, whole foods, either farmer’s market or organic (or both) and you’re home free. You can easily impact your health for the better every day.
At mealtime, every morsel can be a force for good, provided you feed your gut – specifically, the bacteria inside your gut or the gut microbiome – with pre, pro and postbiotics that will enable the rest of you to thrive. How to plug into the power of the ‘three P’s’? Here’s where to start:
Meet the three P’s of good gut health – prebiotics, probiotics and postbiotics.
Despite their similar sounding names, prebiotics and probiotics are three distinctly different players in gut health – and a happy, healthy gut needs all three. There is overlap in the kinds of foods (aka healthy ones!) you should eat to optimize gut function, but each of the three P’s has a distinct and important role to play. In simple terms:
- The probiotics are beneficial bacteria that you can introduce into your gut with certain types of food and/or supplements.
- The prebiotics are the foods that fuel the activities of the beneficial bacteria that live in your gut, and keep their numbers strong.
- The postbiotics are the ‘waste products’ of the beneficial resident bacteria, organic compounds which aid our immunity, metabolism, blood pressure and more.
But, to get to know the three P’s a little better, first, it helps to understand the basics of the gut microbiome.
Your gut microbiome in a nutshell.
Your gut is home to roughly 70% of your immune system, which works in tandem with the trillions of helpful good guy bacteria that live there. Unhelpful varieties also live there too. Within the microbiome, balance between the helpful and unhelpful bugs is the key.
The community’s residents are kept in balance mostly by the prebiotic plant foods that feed the beneficial bacteria in your gut. When you feed these residents with lots of fiber, nutrient-dense foods and little if any sugar, your gut is your great ally in maintaining good health. But a diet filled with sugar and processed foods feeds (and overfeeds) the bad hombres, enabling them to thrive, overwhelm the good guys, weakening immunity and making getting sick a whole lot more likely.
Prebiotics are the fertilizers of your gut garden.
If you think of your gut microbiome as a garden, think of prebiotic foods as the fertilizer. “Fertilize” the beneficial bacteria with the food they love to eat, and let your garden bloom. Their favorite? Plant fiber, especially the parts of raw vegetables and fruits that your body couldn’t otherwise digest. That’s microbiome “gold.” The prebiotic, undigested fiber travels through the small intestine, then heads south to your large intestine or colon. Once there, the beneficial bacteria that live in your gut, feed on it, breaking it down for their own use by fermenting it.
Postbiotics are good-for-you metabolites or ‘waste products’.
When your beneficial bacteria ferment the fiber you provide it, using it for their own energy needs, they release certain waste byproducts. They’re waste products only so far as the bacteria are concerned. They’re incredibly valuable for human health! These compounds, which we now call “postbiotics,” include enzymes, peptides, complex sugars and organic acids. Collectively, they assist with immune and cognitive function, weight control and healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
One superstar in this mix is the organic acid butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid that feeds the cells that line your gastrointestinal tract. That helps prevent toxic leaks into the bloodstream and stops systemic inflammation in its tracks. Hundreds of studies have found links between too little butyrate and increased colon cancer risk, metabolic disease, and even cognitive and memory decline.
The more butyrate the better!
Stock your prebiotic pantry with stems and stalks.
The secret to getting your prebiotic fill? It’s actually pretty simple: Eat the parts of vegetables you normally toss out: the ends of carrots, the stump of the lettuce head, the stemmed tips of green beans.
To get your proper dose, dine out on things like kale ribs and the hard stalks of broccoli; slice them and dip them in hummus, or toss them into a salad. In short, stalks and stems should be eaten, not thrown out – they’re not the garbage – they’re the good stuff. Other items on the list of prebiotic fibrous stand-outs also includes:
- Chicory root
- Dark leafy greens
- Dandelion greens
- Jerusalem artichokes or sunchokes
Though getting your ‘pre’s’ from the food you eat is always best, you can add a prebiotic supplement for additional support — look for a high-quality, non-GMO, organic prebiotic powder that’s also gluten, soy and dairy-free. A recent study from the University of Surrey in the UK found that prebiotic supplements seemed to play a helpful role in easing anxiety, promoting mental health and well-being. These days, that seems like something we could likely all benefit from.
Check out prebiotic resistant starches.
But we’re not talking baked potatoes and pasta here. We’re talking ‘resistant starch’ foods, as in, the starches that don’t raise glucose levels and do go through the fermentation process in your gut. As a bonus, they’ll also help keep you full, help stabilize blood sugar, make elimination easier and cut colon cancer risk – so major wins all around. To get yours:
- try chopping up or grating green bananas or raw plantains and added to smoothies (or eat as is)
- try baking with tigernut flour, to add a prebiotic punch to gluten-free and grain-free baked goods and healthy treats.
Pour on the pro’s too!
Don’t stop at prebiotics. To help your gut thrive, add regular servings from a menu of fermented foods which come with their own health-enhancing supply of “probiotic” bacteria. The more different strains of good bacteria you can provide a home for, the better you’ll be able to digest food, produce certain vitamins, and enhance mood and brain function.
Please note, fermented foods are not appropriate for everyone. Those who have SIBO or a yeast overgrowth in their gut, and those who have a problem metabolizing histamine or just don’t tolerate fermented foods, should not add these foods or even regular probiotics until their condition is resolved.
Top up your probiotic tank on the regular.
Probiotic bacteria are plentiful in dairy foods like yoghurt and kefir – but, if you’re not big on dairy for ethical or dietary reasons, it’s still possible to get your dose by opting for these tasty alternatives.
If you do tolerate fermented foods, try adding one or more of the following to your mealtime mix a few times each week:
- Unsweetened coconut milk yogurt – in addition to a dose of probiotics, a serving will also deliver fiber and good fats in the form of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), a good source of energy which may help with cognitive function and appetite control.
- Kim chi – just a small scoop of kim chi delivers probiotics, fiber and A, B and C vitamins, and better still, the good bacteria found in kim chi may inhibit cancer development and improve immune function.
- Olives – deliver good-for-you anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial phenolic compounds, plus the gut-friendly bacteria.
- Fermented natto and tempeh – organic and stamped with the non-GMO Project seal are the only type you should eat. (Unfermented soy and soy products, however, can have a negative impact on health)
- Fermented pickles – look for versions that specify naturally fermented and contain live active cultures as not all store-bought versions are fermented. Or, better yet, ferment your own.
- Sauerkraut – is a tangy side dish best served cold as cooking it kills off most of the ‘kraut’s bacterial good guys.
Your gut is like a mini-Planet-Earth. Diversity, in this case, bacterial diversity, is the key to resilience and a healthy future, so pay attention to the “biotics” – pre, pro and post!