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Probiotics and Prebiotics: Food for Thought

Good gut bacteria balance is essential to your health


You have more than 100 trillion bacteria living in your digestive system. That’s about the same amount as the number of cells in your body! Some of these bacteria are harmful, but many of them are good. “Helping good bacteria thrive may benefit your digestion and health,” says colon and rectal surgeon Kristen Halm, MD, with Colon-Rectal Surgery Associates and Lehigh Valley Health Network.

“Prebiotics and probiotics work together. For the biggest benefit, pair them up.” - Kristen Halm, MD

It is very important to have the right balance of bacteria. If this balance is off, health problems may occur. Gut bacteria may play a role in obesity, type 2 diabetes and allergies.

“You don’t need special pills or powders to give good bacteria a boost,” Dr. Halm says. “Many common foods can help these beneficial bugs.”

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are live organisms that live in your body. They are available in some foods and have many potential health benefits. They may:

  • Boost your immune system
  • Keep your skin healthy
  • Help ease irritable bowel syndrome symptoms
  • Relieve diarrhea

Yogurt is a popular probiotic option. Look for yogurt that says it has “live active cultures.” Fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut and tempeh also contain this good bacteria.

What are prebiotics?

Certain foods help support the good bacteria in your gut. These foods are called prebiotics. “Particular types of fiber are prebiotics,” Dr. Halm says. “They may aid your digestion and help your body absorb calcium.”

Consider adding these prebiotic foods to your grocery cart:

  • Bananas
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Artichokes
  • Soybeans
  • Whole-wheat items

Eating tips for a healthy gut

“Prebiotics and probiotics work together,” Dr. Halm says. “For the biggest benefit, pair them up.” For example, try yogurt topped with bananas. Or make a tempeh dish that includes onion and garlic.

What about supplements?

While probiotic supplements are readily available online, at grocery stores and at pharmacies, these products aren’t currently approved to treat any specific diseases or health conditions. 

“Before taking probiotic supplements, talk with your doctor or clinician,” Dr. Halm says. “Not all probiotics are the same, and different strains may affect the body in different ways.” Some can interfere with medications. Others might cause side effects in people with underlying health conditions.

Prebiotics are available as supplements, too. But the same rule applies: Talk with your doctor before purchasing or using a prebiotic supplement.

Want some advice on adding probiotics or prebiotics to your diet?

Speak with your doctor or clinician.

If you need one, find one here

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