Like fats, bacteria also get a bad rap, and it should come as no surprise because bacteria are responsible for many diseases. But just like fats, bacteria can be good or bad—it just depends on the type. In fact, certain bacteria are so vital to our survival that, through working on the Human Microbiome Project (HMP), scientists are dedicated to exploring the important symbiotic relationship that exists between microbial cells and people. Microbial cells are estimated to outrank human cells by a factor of 10 to 1. The HMP was largely developed to provide resources that are aimed at increasing our scientific and medical understanding of how microorganisms affect human immunity, health, and nutrition.

Bacteria exist on our skin, in our oral cavity, and in our gut. Scientists are in the dark about precisely how bacteria work and what effects they have in human development. A lot of attention has been growing with respect to the role of gut bacteria. And this is where the notion of probiotics comes into play. It’s natural for people to scoff at the idea of consuming bacteria, which have more of a reputation for causing disease (rather than preventing it). But probiotics are a beneficial kind of bacteria that are commonly found in yogurt, certain beverages, and even supplements. Gastroenterologists even recommend probiotics to help improve many gut conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease. (Probiotics also play a role in the treatment and prevention of vaginal and urinary infections as well as the development of certain allergies in children.)

You may have heard of “prebiotics,” which shouldn’t be confused with probiotics (good bacteria for your gut). Probiotics help you maintain a healthy digestive tract and prevent gut diseases; however, prebiotics are substances that help increase the number of probiotics so they can continue to work at keeping your gut healthy. Prebiotics are not digestible compounds; they are simply enhancers of probiotics serving to ensure the growth of these beneficial bacteria. In order to promote and maximize a healthy gut, eat prebiotic-rich foods. Adding prebiotics in your diet requires eating food that is non-digestible (i.e. not broken down in your stomach or absorbed in your digestive tract), is fermented by bacteria in your gut, and promotes the growth of probiotics. Don’t worry. You don’t have to figure out how these criteria translate into prebiotic-rich foods. Here’s a quick list of prebiotic foods that may or may not be familiar. You can begin incorporating them into your diet:

  • Jicama (yacon), Jerusalem artichoke, and chicory root all contain inulin (no, not insulin), which is a form of prebiotic fiber.
  • Dandelion greens are leafy green vegetables that are made up of 25% prebiotic fiber.
  • Allium vegetables such as garlic, onion, leeks, chives, and scallions are great choices. Add them to food raw (not cooked) for the best source of prebiotics.
  • Whole-grain and sprouted-grain breads
  • Wheat germ, whole wheat berries
  • Avocado
  • Peas, soybeans (e.g., edamame, chickpeas)
  • Potato skins
  • Apple cider vinegar (organic)

Probiotics are important microorganisms that work symbiotically with our cells to maintain good health by facilitating normal digestion, fighting infection, enhancing immunity, and inhibiting deleterious bacteria. There are many types of probiotics. But Bifidobacteria are commonly discussed and studied microbes in the gut. Bifidobacteria supplements are often used in Japan, where they’re taken to promote colonic health. Bifidobacteria are also added to dietary supplements and foods such as yogurt to provide various health benefits, such as strengthening immunity and preventing inflammation. Bifidobacteria have been shown to decrease infection and inflammation in the digestive tract. Because they make up a significant portion of your gut’s normal flora, they’re commonly used for therapeutic purposes. Bifidobacteria provide anti-inflammatory effects by producing a cell surface-associated exopolysaccaride (EPS), which offers protection in the gut against environmental factors, bolsters immunity, and fights infection.

To learn more about prebiotics and probiotics, check out my upcoming book, The Gene Therapy Plan, which comes out April 21 from Viking.

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Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock.com