Edible Ammunition: Defend Your Digestive Health with Prebiotics and Probiotics

I hope this blog post finds each of you staying healthy and avoiding the GI bug that is running wild through the nursing homes here in North Carolina.  Grandma C  had it for 2 days (ugh!) and it was awful!  Like any Registered Dietitian, I’m already thinking about how she can restore her  good gut flora/bacteria from the nasty stomach-bug.

I asked Katrina Levine (MPH/RD Student) to remind us  how prebiotics and probiotics can help us maintain a healthy GI tract.


Ugh…there goes that gurgling, bloating, gas, and uncomfortable pressure again…

If you’ve caught yourself thinking this recently, you are not alone.

Fortunately, there is something YOU can do to improve your digestive system and avoid all those awful symptoms – eat foods that contain prebiotics and probiotics!

What are prebiotics and probiotics?

Probiotics are live bacteria that can be added to food products to help our digestive system run smoothly, promoting health and preventing disease.

Now, hold on a second! Live bacteria??  Don’t worry, these bacteria are not the kind that cause illness – they are the “good” kind that are naturally found in our intestines.  Our bodies need certain types of bacteria to help us digest our food.  Lactobacillus and bifidobacteria are some of the most common strains, and these are the types you want to look for on food labels.

Prebiotics, on the other hand, are like food for those bacteria.  Prebiotics are undigested carbohydrates that are broken down by probiotic bacteria, where they help the bacteria to grow.  Prebiotics can act like fiber in our guts, but ultimately they just serve to help probiotic bacteria do their jobs.

Benefits of prebiotics and probiotics:

  • Help prevent malabsoption that can lead to nutrient deficiencies and malnutrition
  • Decrease constipation and diarrhea, especially antibiotic-related diarrhea
  • Alleviate lactose intolerance
  • Reduce symptoms of chronic diseases causing gastrointestinal stress, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  • Help with the absorption of calcium and reduce the risk of osteoporosis
  • Increase immune system activity

If you’re experiencing any of the problems listed above, then adding pre- and probitotics to your diet may make eating more enjoyable.  However, talk to your doctor or dietitian first before you make any major changes to your diet.

Where to look for pre- and probiotics:

  • Fruits and vegetables— Jerusalem artichokes, onions, chicory, and banana are natural sources of prebiotics
  • Whole grains—also natural sources of prebiotics
  • Fermented dairy (yogurt, milk-based drinks)– look for “live active cultures” and the types of bacteria listed in these probiotic foods
  • Supplements—may contain either pre- or probiotics or both, but  check to make sure the types of bacteria listed are proven to have probiotic benefits


Hamilton-Miller JM. 2004. Probiotics and prebiotics in the elderly. Postgrad Med J. 80:447-451.

Zeratsky, K. 2011. Are probiotics and prebiotics important for health: is it important to include probiotics and prebiotics in a healthy diet? Mayo Clinic. Available from: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/probiotics/AN00389