Prebiotic vs. Probiotic Intake

Artichokes are high in prebiotic plant fiber.

If you aren’t adding copious amounts of raw garlic to every entree or topping your scrambled eggs with kimchi, you are behind the times. Research into the gut microbiome, that complex system of bacteria and microbes that resides within our stomach, is beginning to make it even clearer how important our diets are to our health. While probiotics have gotten most of the publicity—and GNC® shelf space—we are discovering that prebiotics may be just as important. In fact, recently published research has provided some intriguing evidence that prebiotics may be the secret to emotional health, improved sleep, and stress resiliency.

Although often used interchangeably and working synergistically in the gut, probiotics and prebiotics are vastly different things. Probiotics are the healthy bacteria that have everyone rushing to stock up on Greek yogurt and experiment with new fermented foods. Dense and active probiotic populations have been linked to digestive health, improved hormone regulation, and decreased risk for various chronic health conditions. Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates, basically a classification of fiber, that are the nutritional sustenance for the lactobacilli and bifidobacteria in your digestive tract. Garlic, asparagus, onions, artichokes and other whole, roughage-dense foods are full of those oligosaccharides that your gut bacteria feeds off of to induce its health-benefitting magic. Recent research suggests that prebiotic intake is closely associated with healthy inflammatory response, dietary bioavailability (allowing our bodies to get the most nutrition out of the food we eat), and possibly even weight management.

Previous research displayed that prebiotics can influence brain function and hormone regulation, but new evidence may make you want to ask for extra onions on that burger in the name of emotional health. In the latest study, researchers found that intake of a specific prebiotic, galacto-oligosaccharide (GOS), which is found in high concentrations in many legumes, not only decreased secretion of the stress hormone cortisol, but also improved several metrics of emotional processing. Compared to participants who were asked to supplement with a maltodextrin placebo, the research group taking 5.5 g of GOS each morning with their breakfast exhibited less of an effect from negative criticism and focused more on positive words. The data was so significant that researchers suggested that the anti-anxiolytic effect of prebiotic supplementation was comparable to many current antidepressant medications. A warm bowl of lentil soup may be the perfect antidote for another work day spent in cubicle torment.

Another group of researchers examined the influence of prebiotic supplementation on sleep and stress. What they found was that consumption of lactoferrin (LF) and milk fat globule membrane (MFGM), prebiotic substances found in high concentrations in human milk and in lower levels in cow’s milk, promoted increased time spent in non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, the first four phases of sleep that focus on physiological and neurological restoration. Furthermore, they found that LF and MFGM supplementation following an exposure to a stressor resulted in longer rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the final stage of sleep that is believed to be critical for sorting memory and recovering from trauma. Overall, consumption of LF and MFGM was highly associated with sleep quality, resilience to stress, and gut health. So, there may be a little more to that glass of milk before bedtime than calcium and vitamin D.

It’s amazing how the further we dig into nutritional science, the more we discover how closely linked our well-being is to the quality of fuel we provide our bodies. As science continues to reveal, a healthy gut microbiome can influence virtually every component of health. And it isn’t necessary that we feed those hungry bacteria with supplements, a diet of whole, fiber-rich foods will do the trick. Sleep the day’s stress away by adding a handful of leeks to your homemade bone broth soup, throwing some asparagus on the grill for dinner, and washing it down with a cold glass of milk.

Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.