Prebiotics and probiotics: Eating for your gut

Prebiotics and probiotics are two types of “nutrition boosters” that can benefit your digestive system. Most people can get the benefits of prebiotics and probiotics through a healthy diet, rather than needing to take supplements,

Prebiotics are natural, non-digestible food components that promote the growth of helpful bacteria in the gut. They’re found in high-fiber, whole-grain foods, as well as foods you might not expect, like bananas, onions, asparagus, artichokes and garlic.

Prebiotics promote the formation of probiotics, which are the “good” bacteria — or live cultures — found in your gut. Probiotics can restore and improve gastrointestinal health.

[See: 10 Weird Things That Can Make You Poop. ]

Some types of yogurt are marketed as having added probiotics. You’d have to eat quite a bit of yogurt to get the benefits of the additional probiotics. For most people, eating a healthy diet that’s high-fiber, with plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, will provide enough prebiotics to help your body naturally produce its own probiotics.

Do You Need a Probiotic Supplement?

It’s generally not necessary to take probiotic supplements. Dietary supplements of any kind, including probiotics, aren’t tested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the way traditional medicines are, which means you don’t know what you’re getting. While probiotics supplements are often marketed as a treatment for certain stomach-related ailments such as irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease and constipation, Dr. Shah says there has not been a lot of conclusive research on the benefits of probiotic supplements for these conditions.

There are a few groups of patients that may benefit from probiotic supplements. These include patients with ulcerative colitis and people with diarrhea caused by antibiotics. Anyone with gastrointestinal issues should talk to their doctor before they take probiotic supplements.

[See: 10 Cheap Plant-Based Meals.]

How to Increase Your Fiber Intake

Eating a high-fiber diet has many health benefits in addition to promoting your body’s formation of probiotics. It lowers cholesterol, regulates blood sugar and helps with weight control. When eating a high-fiber diet, drink plenty of water to avoid constipation.

Here’s how to increase the amount of fiber in your diet:

— Choose whole-grain bread with 2 to 4 grams of dietary fiber per slice.

— Choose cereals with at least 5 grams of dietary fiber per serving.

— Choose raw fruits and vegetables in place of juice, and eat the skins.

— Sprinkle bran in soups, cereals, baked products, spaghetti sauce, ground meat and casseroles.

— Use dried peas, beans and legumes in main dishes, salads or side dishes such as rice or pasta.

— Add dried fruit to yogurt, cereal, rice and muffins.

— Eat brown rice instead of white rice.

— Have whole-grain pasta.

When to Talk to Your Doctor

If you’re having stomach problems, it’s important to see your doctor instead of trying to self-treat with supplements.

Make an appointment to see your doctor if you have:

— Significant abdominal pain that occurs frequently, or lasts more than a day.

— Unexplained weight loss.

— Changes in bowel habits.

— Blood in your stool.

— A family history of gastrointestinal illnesses.

[See: U.S. News’ 41 Best Diets Overall.]

There are many proven, evidence-based treatments for gastrointestinal problems. Probiotic supplements most likely won’t be harmful, but they’re unlikely to be helpful, either. However, select subgroups may benefit as an adjunct to standard therapies.

Vipul Shah, MD, is chief of gastroenterology at Montefiore Nyack Hospital.

More from U.S. News

How Often Should I Poop, and Other Toilet Topics

10 Weird Things That Can Make You Poop

What to Eat, Drink and Do to Relieve Constipation

Prebiotics and Probiotics: Eating for Your Gut originally appeared on

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