Think of your gut microbiome like a garden – tending to it with the right food and conditions allows for a thriving and vibrant garden. You wouldn’t plant flowers and then never water them or give them fertiliser, would you?
Gut health is vital to your overall wellbeing – from immunity, to mood, to digestion. Probiotics play an enormous role in maintaining a healthy gut – but these good bugs need nourishment too. That’s where prebiotics come in. A combination of fibres, including prebiotic fibres from a variety of food sources are needed to support a healthy gut microbiome.
What are prebiotics?
Prebiotics act as a food source to nourish healthy bacteria. This results in thriving populations of supportive strains of probiotics.
All prebiotic food sources are fibre, but not all fibre is prebiotic. Aiming to get a variety of fibres in your diet ensures a healthy gut and happy probiotic populations.
Where are prebiotics found?
Some of my favourite sources of prebiotics include:
- Rolled oats
- Legumes like chickpeas, lentils and cannellini beans
- Resistant starch from green bananas and cooked, cooled potatoes also acts as a prebiotic source.
What’s the difference between prebiotics and probiotics?
Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria that make up a large portion of the gut microbiome (and an estimated 70% of the immune system!)
These good bugs need premium food sources – this is where prebiotics come into the picture. Eating plenty of prebiotic fibre supports the beneficial strains of bacteria in your gut. This is important, because changing the gut microbiome to be mostly the good bacteria such as the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains supports overall health.1
What are the benefits of prebiotic foods?
Consuming prebiotic fibre doesn’t just help the good gut bugs to thrive – prebiotics also support the production of something called ‘short chain fatty acids’ (SCFA). SCFAs provide fuel for the cells of the gut, resulting in healthy new cells that are more resilient2 – this makes for a very happy, well functioning digestive system!
Through supporting the health of the gut, prebiotics can help improve absorption of essential minerals like zinc and magnesium.3
As a slow-release fibre that supports bacteria, eating prebiotics can also support healthy blood sugar levels and insulin.3
Regularly eating prebiotic fibre helps to move along waste products that can sometimes build up and cause a range of health issues – this can also help to prevent intestinal infections.3 So, the takeaway here is if you’re struggling with health issues ranging from blood sugar imbalances, IBS, food allergies, gut infections or inflammation, you’ll want to make sure you’re getting plenty of prebiotic fibre.
Are Prebiotics Right for You?
Of course, if you’re strictly gluten free you’ll need to avoid certain types of prebiotics – including oats. For some gluten sensitive folk, the protein contained in oats called avenin – which is technically a gluten protein can trigger a reaction.4
So, what if you’re gluten free and need a prebiotic? Freshly ground flaxseed (linseeds) are an excellent gluten free substitute for oats.
A condition known as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, or SIBO, can be exacerbated by high fibre foods. SIBO occurs when the small bowel becomes overrun by harmful bacteria. Prebiotics can trigger a worsening of symptoms. Only certain sources of prebiotics are helpful here, so it’s best to discuss this with your healthcare practitioner.5
People suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can benefit a great deal from going on a short-term low FODMAP diet – this includes reducing certain sources of fibre, such as legumes and some vegetables. The good news is that the prebiotic fibres oat bran (at ½ a cup per serve) and flaxseeds (at 1 tablespoon per serve) are low FODMAP and can relieve symptoms of IBS.6
How to Prepare Prebiotic Grains
Preparing prebiotic grains is an important step if you want to get the most nutrition out of your chosen grains without your digestive system having to work overtime. This was always part of the process of eating grains in traditional wisdom, which has unfortunately been lost in recent times.
The purpose of soaking grains is to activate the digestive enzyme phytase, which helps the body to break the grain down efficiently. Not only that, but soaking also breaks down phytic acid – a difficult to digest part of the grain that can lead to gut upset.
Here’s how to prepare some of my favourite prebiotic fibres:
Prepare barley by soaking overnight in water with an acid medium such as lemon or apple cider vinegar and salt. Rinse the grains thoroughly the next day and then cook well in your chosen meal, such as a soup, stew or on its own.
To make a porridge, prepare your oats the night before by soaking in water, a pinch of sea salt and your acid medium. In the morning, a quick cook on stove top with a little extra water or milk of choice and your highly digestible and satisfying breakfast will be ready.
Flaxseeds (also known as Linseeds)
Flaxseeds are my favourite gluten free, prebiotic fibre of choice! These flavourful little seeds are rich in essential fatty acids that are released when freshly ground. It’s important to eat them very soon after grinding, as the health-giving oils can oxidise quickly. Your fresh-ground flaxseeds can be prepared just like oats, soaking in water with an acid medium overnight. Soak your flaxseed meal at the same time with your favourite porridge grains and pseudocereals. In the morning, gently heat the mix and top with your preferred milk and fresh fruit.
Tending to your gut microbiome with prebiotic fibres is a simple daily act that can lead to a happy, healthier gut.
So why not let your microbiome garden flourish and experience for yourself the power of prebiotics?
Connect with the author: Anthia Koullouros is a Naturopath, Herbalist, and Apothecarius based in Sydney.
Find out more about Anthia and her work by visiting Apotheca by Anthia.
- Davis, N. (208). The human microbiome – why our microbes could be key to our health. The Guardian. Accessed June 2021 from https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/26/the-human-microbiome-why-our-microbes-could-be-key-to-our-health
- Parada Venegas, D., et al. (2019). Short chain fatty acids (SCFAs)-mediated gut epithelial and immune regulation and its relevance for inflammatory bowel diseases. Front Immunol, 10:277.
- Monash University. (2020). Prebiotic Fibre FAQs. Accessed June 2021 from https://www.monash.edu/medicine/ccs/gastroenterology/prebiotic/faq
- Coeliac Australia. (2020). Oats and the gluten free diet. Accessed June 2021 from https://www.coeliac.org.au/s/article/Oats-and-the-gluten-free-diet
- Fawley, Bradley & Hunter in Hechtman, L. (2019). Clinical Naturopathic Medicine, 2nd Ed. p.313. Chatswood, NSW: Elsevier.
- Monash University. (2017). Fibre supplements and IBS. Accessed June 2021 from https://www.monashfodmap.com/blog/fibre-supplements-ibs/