The Machine Within

How to support your own internal ecosystem with probiotics and prebiotics

Just a few short years ago, the concept of a microbiome (a.k.a. gut health or intestinal flora) hit the wellness scene. Health experts started preaching the importance of nourishing and protecting the microorganisms that reside in your gastrointestinal tract. Researchers made connections between a robust internal environment and improved digestion, boosted immunity and even cleared cognitive function. And grocery stores stocked rows of brand after brand of supplements that promised to add billions and trillions of bugs—mainly bacteria and yeasts—to your gut, all in the name of optimal health.

However, the more researchers studied the concept of gut health, the more they realized the story doesn’t end there. Probiotics need quality fuel to thrive inside your body. Not shockingly, they feed off the fuel you provide them and behave accordingly. Meaning: not all food is created equal when it comes to these choosy bacteria. They mostly flourish on high-quality plant fibers, and these food sources are collectively known as prebiotics. You can think about them like the soil and fertilizer that seeds need to grow. It’s a complicated but hugely important relationship that happens without us even noticing—unless something goes wrong, of course. So here is a guide to bolstering both pro- and prebiotics.

PROBIOTICS

Scientific names: Lactobacillus, bifidobacteria, Saccharomyces boulardii

Common sources: Fermented foods, yogurt, kombucha, kimchi, kefir, aged cheeses, tempeh, sauerkraut, sourdough bread, supplements

Everyday uses: These bacteria can help digest food, destroy disease-causing cells, or produce vitamins.

Medicinal uses: According to the National Institutes of Health, “Probiotics have shown promise for a variety of health purposes, including prevention of antibiotic-associated diarrhea, prevention of necrotizing enterocolitis and sepsis in premature infants, treatment of infant colic, treatment of periodontal disease, and induction or maintenance of remission in ulcerative colitis.”

Weaknesses: High temperatures are notorious for rendering probiotics useless. For this reason, you should shop for supplement versions in the refrigerated section. Antibiotics are also known enemies of probiotics. Some studies say a single round of antibiotics can knock out healthy gut bacteria for up to two years. Lastly, poor diet, mainly a highly processed sugar intake, can negatively affect the balance.

PREBIOTICS

Scientific names: Fructo-oligosaccharides, galacto-oligosaccharides, and trans-galacto-oligosaccharides

Common sources: Fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, onions and garlic, supplements

Everyday uses: These foods contain a certain kind of fiber that is actually largely indigestible by human beings, but bacteria love it. They consume these fibers as fuel and put it to good use performing many of the functions listed above.

Medicinal uses: Research suggests that digestive disorders, memory loss and other cognitive functions, immune responses, skin rashes, detoxification, cardiovascular health and more are improved with an increased intake in prebiotics based on their ability to aid the work of probiotics. According to the NIH, they “selectively stimulate the growth or activity of desirable microorganisms.” 

Weaknesses: Like probiotics, there is still much to learn and study concerning the effectiveness of prebiotics (especially in supplement form), which is a good reason to remain skeptical. We do know, however, that unlike probiotics, they are much more resilient to heat, stomach acid, antibiotics and sugar. The main concern with an increased consumption is usually bloat or flatulence.

SYNBIOTICS

The most recent addition to the mix is synbiotics, man-made supplements that promise to perfectly mix and match prebiotics with probiotics for maximum impact. The verdict is still out on how effective they are, but the concept is getting a lot of buzz.

At-home Probiotic Kimchi

The two traditional ingredients for kimchi are cabbage and radish. But once you have a good base and understanding of how to ferment the mixture, you can throw in whatever veggies you want: carrots, cucumbers, onions, cauliflower, etc.

Ingredients

  • 5 pounds Napa cabbage (one large or two small heads), rinsed and chopped
  • 1/2 cup coarse sea salt
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 pound Korean radish, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 sweet onion
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1/2 inch piece of ginger, peeled
  • 1/2 cup red pepper powder
  • 1 teaspoon fish sauce
  • 1 bundle green onions, sliced
  • Splash of water
  • 4 wide-mouth glass mason jars

Preparation

  1. In a large mixing bowl, mix the cabbage, radish, sea salt and water. Once the salt has dissolved, let it sit for two hours.
  2. In a food processor, blend the sweet onion, garlic, ginger, fish sauce and water. Once pureed, pour into a small bowl and add the red pepper powder and green onion.
  3. Rinse the cabbage and radish and toss with the red pepper mixture. Fill your jars and seal tightly. Let the jars sit out at room temperature for 24 to 48 hours, depending on how sour you prefer the taste. The longer you let sit, the more sour it will be. Once refrigerated, you can keep the jars for months with no risk of going bad.

At-home Prebiotic Jerusalem Artichokes

Jerusalem artichokes, commonly known as sunchokes, are an obscure root vegetable heralded as one of the best natural sources of prebiotics. But what are sunchokes? They look like a cross between a potato and ginger, but taste nothing like either. In fact, they offer a sweet, nutty taste that’s all their own. How do you use these magical roots? It’s easy.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound sunchokes
  • 1 tablespoon avocado oil
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • Salt and pepper
  • Handful of herbs, freshly chopped
  • Dash of lemon

Preparation

  1. Preheat the over to 450 degree F. Rinse and thinly slice the sunchokes.
  2. Spread the sunchokes in a large, glass baking dish and drizzle the oil on top. Season with salt and pepper.
  3. Bake for 15 minutes.
  4. With five minutes left, add the fresh herbs and continue to cook for five to 10 more minutes until the sunchokes are soft.
  5. Remove from the oven, add the lemon juice and let rest for five minutes. Serve warm.

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