You ever just know something so strongly that you feel it “in your gut?”
We often say we had a “gut reaction” or “gut instinct” to make a certain decision. So it’s interesting to find out that our guts—our intestines—are, in fact, nerve-rich centers of the body that impact many aspects of wellbeing, including how we think. And a new study has proven it. Based on this new information we chose to put Prebiotic fiber into our Paleo Protein Bars™.
Researchers at UCLA have shown that, not only can the brain send nerve signals to the gut, but the gut can send signals to the brain. This may explain why people with intestinal problems may experience concurrent depression or anxiety.
Sadly, many of us don’t have healthy intestines. In fact, 60 to 70 million Americans are affected each year by digestive diseases. No wonder so many of us wander around in a fog, feel lethargic or depressed, or lack motivation. Are you one of them?
You no doubt have heard that eating more vegetables and less junk food will help your gut. And you’ve probably heard about probiotics and their effects on digestive health. But we bet there is a huge piece to the good-digestion puzzle you haven’t heard about: a lesser-known, but hugely important type of fiber known as “prebiotic fiber.” This article will discuss the importance of prebiotics in the health of your gut, and how you can ensure you are getting some in your meals.
We bet once you know how important prebiotics are to your intestines and overall wellbeing you’ll pay much more attention to getting them into your diet! At least, that’s our gut feeling on this topic. Here’s why.
Why gut health is important
Before we get to the cool part about prebiotics, we want to make sure you understand how your intestines work, and how bacteria play a role. Let’s tackle a bit of background info first.
Your gastrointestinal (GI) tract extends from your mouth, down through your stomach, and all the way through your intestines. But when we say “gut” we are specifically referring to your intestines. If you have a healthy gut, you will typically also have good energy, regular and comfortable visits to the toilet for function “number 2,” and no bloating. If you have an unhealthy gut, you may feel sluggish, bloated, and/or have irregular bowel movements, among other problems.
And with your intestines occupying much of the pelvic space from above your belly button down to your pubic area, you can pretty much kiss any hope of flat abs goodbye if you are not digesting your food properly! Not to mention digestive pain, flatulence… well, you get the picture. Not ideal if you want to look and feel your best.
So what about fiber, you may ask. Isn’t that good for your gut?
Yes, scientists have known since the 1970’s that fiber is incredibly important to digestive health. The best sources of fiber in general are plant sources—and surprise, surprise, most Americans eat way less fiber in general than they should, choosing to nosh on constipation-inducing processed foods instead of fiber-rich veggies, fruit or nuts. Increasing fiber intake (plant foods) and water consumption (both in water-rich foods like fruits and vegetables, as well as actual glasses of water) would be a huge help for most people. (Too much fiber is not a good thing either, by the way. As always, we advocate against extremes.)
So here’s some good news: If you’ve already gone Paleo, you’re probably already eating a good range of produce, and especially vegetables, which add fiber to your diet. If not, you gotta start!
But the full story on fiber goes deeper. This article focusses on the special benefits of a particular type of fiber, known as nondigestible fiber or, (wait for it!) prebiotics. These differ from their similar-sounding and more famous cousins, the probiotics. We’ll explain their differences below.
Bottom line: It’s critical to have an optimally functioning intestine if you want to look and feel amazing and have a flat stomach area. And to have a healthy gut, you need healthy bacteria. This is where prebiotics can help you. Let us explain.
Your gut’s amazing ecosystem
Your small intestines have several functions. Primary among these to absorb nutrients from your food into your bloodstream. After a long passage through the small intestine, what is left of your chewed-up food arrives at your large intestine, also known as your colon. Your colon absorbs and secretes certain electrolytes and water, and plays an important part in the storage and excretion of waste materials (feces).
The colon is also full of bacteria—but that’s the way it’s supposed to be! Your large intestine has—by far—a larger microbial population than any other region of the digestive tract, with as many as 400 different types of bacteria present.
In essence, your colon has its own little microbial ecosystem. And as with the Earth’s environment, a conscientious cultivation and maintenance of this ecosystem is required for overall bodily health. Making sure these bacteria are healthful—and not harmful—is a crucial part of sustaining your energy, toileting well, and avoiding long-term disease.
So your large intestine is (or at least, should be) full of “friendly” bacteria. Unfortunately, poor diet and lifestyle habits tend to suppress the good kind of our microbial friends.
In fact, through a process of fermentation, colonic bacteria can produce a wide range of compounds which influence your gut and overall health, for better or for worse. These influences may be either positive or negative, depending on what type of bacteria proliferate in the colon.
Sadly, a lot of “bad” bacteria in your colon can mean diarrhea, infections, liver damage, carcinogenesis and intestinal putrefaction. But cultivating “good” bacteria can help inhibit of growth of harmful bacteria. Friendly gut flora can also help boost immune functions, reduce gas distention problems, improve the digestion and absorption of essential nutrients, and support the synthesis of vitamins.
Bottom line: For optimal wellbeing, you must maintain a natural and healthful balance of microorganisms (microflora) in your intestines.
Helping your “good” bacteria grow
Clearly, you want to eat in a way that supports the growth and proliferation of the “good” bacteria that have positive health influences on your body. These “good” bacteria are often described as “probiotic” (that’s p-r-o, not p-r-e!).
To review: Probiotics are microbial food supplements that beneficially affect a host (that’s you!) by improving its intestinal microbial balance. Probiotic bacteria reduce harmful bacteria, suggesting that probiotics can prevent infections in the digestive tract and reduce inflammation. Lactobacillus acidophilus—famously found in yogurt—is the most prevalent probiotic bacteria in the colon.
Probiotics can be used to change the composition of colonic microbiota. However, these changes may be transient. So the benefits of eating probiotic-rich food sources might have practical limitations. Ideally, your diet will support the role of probiotics to ensure long-term health… and this where prebiotics can help.
How prebiotics help
Bacteria—including probiotic bacteria—grow on surfaces. The technical term for this surface is a “substrate.” The main sources of substrates for bacterial growth in the colon are dietary carbohydrates that have escaped digestion in the upper GI tract.
These difficult-to-digest fibers are often referred to as “nondigestible fibers.” Prebiotics are a kind of nondigestible fiber. In essence, prebiotics help “feed” and support probiotics.
Bottom line: you want to make sure you have enough places (surfaces) upon which healthy bacteria (probiotics) can flourish in your colon. Prebiotics are one such “growing place.”
Now we should mention that this article presents a simplified version of the overall picture. The processes we are describing are highly complex and the exact physiological and biochemical interactions involved go well beyond the scope of this article, and are the subject of much current research. The key point we are leading to, though, is that what you eat is an important part of your gut health, and the most important factor under your direct control. So let’s focus on that for now… the part you can most easily control!
Prebiotics in your diet
We mentioned earlier you should eat a fiber- and vegetable-rich diet. But here are many types of dietary fiber, from many different sources. One such type is prebiotic fiber. They are usually called “non-digestible oligosaccharides;” examples include Isomalto-oligosaccharide (IMO) is a type of prebiotic fiber used in our Paleo Protein Bars™
To review: Prebiotics are nondigestible food ingredients that beneficially affect a host (you!) by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of bacteria already resident in the colon. This can improve host health. They also have other benefits. Prebiotics may also help modulate lipid (fat) metabolism. Another cool fact: Inulin, oligosaccharides and certain other fibers have also been found to enhance mineral absorption, particularly calcium.
So probiotics and prebiotics work together to support health and are both functional foods. It’s important to include both of them in a healthy diet. Probiotics are found in fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, miso, kombucha, and non-pasteurized sauerkraut, pickles and kimchi. Prebiotics occur naturally in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, radish and asparagus.
In prepared convenience foods, prebiotic fiber can be used as a fiber source, bulking agent and/or mild sweetener. For example, we use IMO in our Paleo Protein Bars because it tastes good, is gut-friendly and low-calorie, and doesn’t substantially add to the net carbs of a food.
But if you eat Paleo, take note: IMO can be derived from various cereal crops such as wheat, barley, corn, or pulses. This type of IMO is not ideal for a Paleo diet. We exclusively use tapioca-derived IMO in our food products, which allows us to avoid gluten-containing crops (such as wheat) or crops that are typically genetically modified (such as corn). That way, our products that contain prebiotic fiber (IMO) will remain 100% Paleo.
So here’s our best advice for digestive health. As always, we recommend eating a diet full of fiber-rich, natural foods, including lots of vegetables, as well as some fruits, nuts and seeds. A Paleo lifestyle clearly helps you take care of that.
We also want you try foods that are naturally high in probiotics and prebiotics in your diet. And when you do choose to occasionally eat prepared foods—such as protein bars—read the nutrition labels to see if the fiber source and net carbs match your goals. You can see an example with our Paleo Protein Bars™—note the net carbs and fiber content. That’s thanks to the bar’s prebiotic fiber.
Remember, if you want to look and feel amazing, it usually pays to follow you gut. And your gut wants to be healthy! Prebiotics like IMO can help get you there.
Note: In order to test for IMO in food you have to find a lab that can perform an HPLC-RI and total soluble and dietary IMO Fiber test or the nutritional analysis will not show the proper fiber amount. Not all labs offer this sort of testing and we went the extra mile to lab verify all our nutritional claims and post them online!
By: Heath Squier / CEO / Julian Bakery, Inc.