You probably already have some understanding of how the food you eat affects your digestion, but you may not know how much your digestion affects your health. Your gut is full of bacteria – both good and bad – that aid in the digestion of food and the absorption of nutrients. More than that, however, those bacteria also play a role in various aspects of total body health and wellness including inflammation, blood sugar, cholesterol, and even mood.
As you may already know, probiotics are beneficial bacteria that can support healthy gut function. You can find them in things like yogurt and fermented foods. But what about prebiotics? How are they different and what role do they play in healthy digestion? Keep reading to find out.
Prebiotics vs. Probiotics
Probiotics are living organisms that help to maintain the right balance of good to bad bacteria in your gut. They keep harmful bacteria from getting out of control and triggering problems such as inflammation, infection, and gastrointestinal upset. By maintaining that balance, probiotics can also help relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Prebiotics are an entirely different thing. First and foremost, they are not living organisms – they are soluble, fermentable fibers that cannot be fully digested in the stomach. Instead of breaking down completely in the stomach, prebiotic fibers move into the intestines where they become a food source for probiotics.
How to Add Them to Your Diet
Probiotics and prebiotics are two completely different things, but they both play an essential role in health and digestion, so you should get them where you can. For probiotics, naturally-occurring sources are the most beneficial, though probiotic supplements can be used to boost your intake. Some of the best food sources of probiotics include fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kefir – these foods are made with carbohydrates and sugars that provide nutrients for the bacteria to keep them alive long enough for your consumption.
Like probiotics, natural sources for prebiotics are the most beneficial as well. Food sources of prebiotics include things that are high in soluble fiber such as Jerusalem artichokes (you may know them as sunchokes), onion, garlic, chicory root, and beans. Food sources of resistant starch are also beneficial as prebiotics. Resistant starch is a type of fiber that is resistant to digestion by the stomach, and it can be found in foods like oats, legumes, and unripe bananas. It can also be found in cooked foods like potatoes, pasta, and rice after they have cooled.
Make Your Own Probiotic-Rich Fermented Veggies
Though you can purchase fermented foods like sauerkraut, yogurt, and kimchi at the grocery store, they may contain artificial ingredients that are best avoided. Fortunately, it is very easy to make your own fermented veggies at home, and they are an excellent source of probiotics. Here is a basic recipe for making fermented veggies that you can customize to your liking:
- 4 medium red apples, cored and chopped
- 4 cups fresh cauliflower florets
- 4 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
- 1 bunch green onions, sliced into ½-inch slices
- 3 tablespoons fresh grated ginger
- 8 tablespoons coarse sea salt
- Toss the apples, cauliflower, carrots, green onion, and celery together in a large bowl.
- Transfer the mixture to a large glass jar and press them down with a wooden spoon, sprinkling the sea salt as you compress the veggies.
- Check to make sure the mixture fills the jar no higher than 1 inch below the rim – you should also make sure the expressed liquid from the veggies covers them completely.
- If you need to add more liquid, make a brine using 4 cups water and 2 tablespoons sea salt – fill the jar to 1 inch below the top.
- Place a plate over the top of the jar to weigh down the veggies – cover with a kitchen towel, if needed, to keep out fruit flies.
- Set the jar in a warm place to ferment for 3 to 5 days.
- Check the jar once a day to make sure the brine still covers the vegetable mixture – remove any mold that forms on the surface.
- Start tasting the veggies after 3 days and keep fermenting until it reaches the desired taste.
- Cover the jar tightly with a lid and transfer to the refrigerator or pantry for storage.
Whether you choose to make your own fermented veggies or buy them at the store, probiotic foods should become a part of your regular diet. By combining these foods with natural prebiotic fibers, you can support the healthy balance of bacteria in your digestive tract for optimal health and wellness.