Dr. Williams has talked about gut flora and probiotics for decades…long before they became popular. When Dr. Williams was seeing patients, the link between bowel health and dozens of the most common health complaints seemed so blatantly obvious. When you treat the whole person instead of just treating a disease or symptom, an imbalance in the intestinal tract stands out like an elephant in the room.
At long last, in just the past few years, the importance of proper intestinal flora and probiotics are getting the attention they deserve. Research is confirming the direct connection between a disruption of gut flora and everything from heart and blood sugar issues to mental health problems. While the public and medical professionals are just starting to realize the importance of probiotics, we’ve been reaping the benefits for decades.
Prebiotics: Food for Friendly Bacteria
Another term you’re likely beginning to see more and more is “prebiotics.” Simply put, prebiotics are the food consumed by probiotics, the beneficial bacteria already residing in your gut. Probiotics are living microorganisms and need food to stay alive and flourish. Prebiotics, however, are not living organisms.
I don’t want to get into too much detail here, but in the long run, it will be helpful for you to understand a few details about prebiotics. It will enable you to improve your health and keep you from wasting money on unnecessary supplements.
For something to be considered a prebiotic, it has to meet three criteria. It must:
- Not be broken down by stomach acid or enzymes in the body and absorbed into the body;
- Be able to be fermented by the microflora in the gut; and
- Be a food source only for the beneficial members of the gut microbial community and not those that are pathogenic.
For the most part, prebiotics are soluble fiber and non-digestible sugars. (I should say non-digestible by humans…the microbes in our gut can digest them.)
As you recall, there are two types of fiber—insoluble and soluble. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and insoluble fiber does not.
Neither humans nor microorganisms can digest insoluble fiber. It’s mainly found in whole grains and vegetables. It acts like a broom that scrubs the digestive tract, creating a laxative effect. It’s actually an irritant that causes contractions and triggers the release of natural lubricants to move food and waste material through the digestive tract.
Soluble fiber mixes with water and becomes gel-like. It slows down digestion, which gives a feeling of fullness and helps reduce rapid rises in blood sugar and the resulting insulin release. This water-soluble fiber (a form of carbohydrate) moves through the digestive tract until it reaches the good bacteria in the colon. The bacteria ferment and feed on the fiber.
During the fermentation process, soluble fiber is converted to short-chain fatty acids like butyric acid. Butyric acid stimulates more good bacterial growth. It also improves mineral and fat absorption, and prevents inflammation and cancer formation. Its anti-inflammatory action can be extremely helpful in calming conditions like ulcerative colitis and inflammatory bowel disease.
ButyrAid by Nutricology is an enterically coated tablet of butyric acid that I’ve found to be very effective. Most people don’t know that kombucha tea also contains relatively high levels of butyric acid. However, I look at the supplemental use of butyric acid products as a temporary solution. Once you get the proper microorganism balance in the gut and supply it with soluble fiber, butyric acid production can be restored to the area naturally.
The Most Common Prebiotics
The two most-widely accepted prebiotics are FOS (fructooligosaccharides, which includes inulin) and GOS (galactooligosaccharides). There are lots of other prebiotics, but there isn’t as much research as there is with these two.
From a chemistry standpoint, prebiotics are carbohydrates or sugars. Remember, they aren’t sugars that we can digest, so they don’t raise blood sugar levels or typically cause any issues. If you read prebiotic labels, you’ll see ingredients that end in “saccharides” and “ose,” which means sugar or carbohydrate. And you might see ones that end in “itol” for the alcohol sugars. But that’s enough chemistry.
Nature Provides Us the Prebiotics We Need
Probably the most important thing to remember is this: If your diet is right, Dr. Williams doesn’t think taking a prebiotic supplement is necessary. Some more advanced probiotic supplements include prebiotics to help keep the bacteria alive and extend the potency, which makes sense. But in Dr. Williams opinion, you don’t need to take separate prebiotic supplement. Our environment provides us with the prebiotics that we need. It’s been this way since birth.
Within the first four days of life, Bifidobacterium longum begins to colonize in the gut of newborns. As adults, we have hundreds of different species of bacteria in our gut, but Bifidobacterium longum is only found in newborns, and is the primary form of beneficial bacteria in the newborn’s gut. This bacteria feeds on a component of breast milk that is indigestible to the baby. It is commonly found in the feces of infants and been shown to coat the lining of the infant’s intestine and protect it from pathogenic bacteria. (Comp Immunol Microbiol Infect Dis 06;29(5–6):345–352) (Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2011 Mar 15;108 Suppl 1:4653–4658) (J Nutr 12;142(11):1921–1928)
When you closely analyze breast milk, it isn’t loaded with extremely high levels of vitamins and minerals, yet a baby is able to survive and actually thrive on it. Much of this stems from the fact that their gut has only one type of bacteria and it feeds off what would be waste products in the milk (sugars that the baby can’t digest).
Once babies are switched to formula, the type of bacterium in their gut begins to change. The Bifidobacterium longum gets replaced with more adult forms of bacteria. These new forms require increased amounts and different sources of prebiotics. As a result, bowel movements change, and the risk of nutritional deficiencies, allergies, gastrointestinal problems, respiratory infections, and developmental problems increases.
There are a few reasons for this. Newborns grow at an extremely rapid rate, unlike adults. Their nutritional needs are different than an adult’s. Mother’s milk during this time is the perfect diet because it provides the correct amount of fat, carbs, and protein to the baby. The initial strain of Bifidobacterium longum is designed to help transform components in breast milk into the necessary fatty acids and other compounds needed for neurological development, hormone formation, and much more. (In fact, supportive research shows that breastfed babies may have slightly higher IQs, likely from the increased levels of fatty acids used to build neurological connections.) If a baby does not get these initial components, there’s an increased risk of developing the problems mentioned earlier.
The adult strains of probiotics that eventually inhabit everyone’s gut are beneficial, but it all has to do with timing. Since a baby’s immune system isn’t as developed as an adult’s, it’s not equipped to deal with an influx of many different strains of new bacteria. It adds extra physiological stress at a critical time in development.
Researchers have added prebiotics to baby formula to make it more like breast milk, but in reality, formula could never fully recreate the special components of breast milk.
Prebiotics in Food
The fact that our health is influenced by prebiotics from birth illustrates just how important they are. Fortunately, we don’t have to look too hard to find them in our food supply.
Most prebiotic supplements are made from grains like oats and corn. Obviously, most whole grains contain soluble fiber. This includes brown rice, whole grain breads, whole-wheat pasta, barley, oatmeal, flax, chia, etc. In an attempt to limit gluten, lectins, phytic acid, and starch consumption, many of us are trying to cut back on the grains in our diet. As such, it’s nice to know that prebiotics occur naturally in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, as well.
All you have to do is eat a variety of produce and you can forgo the cost of a prebiotic supplement. This includes vegetables like asparagus, leeks, artichokes, garlic, carrots, peas, beans, onions, chicory, jicama, broccoli, tomatoes, cauliflower, spinach, kale, and chard. It’s interesting to note that cooking these vegetables doesn’t negatively affect the prebiotic fiber content materially. So you can eat them raw or cooked. As for fruits, fresh or frozen bananas, cherries, apples, pears, oranges, strawberries, cranberries, kiwi, and berries are good sources. Nuts are also a prebiotic source.
As Dr. Williams mentioned earlier, soluble fiber turns gel-like when mixed with water. Pectin, gum arabic, and inulin are soluble fibers that are often added to yogurts, jams, jellies, milk-based desserts, nutrition bars, drinks, and other products to improve texture and thickness and enhance the satiating power.
Just like you, Dr. Williams take quite a few supplements. And while he is always open to adding new ones to my regimen, if he can get what he needs from his diet, he’d much rather do that. Cost and convenience is always on his mind whenever he make any suggestion or recommendation. Such is the case with prebiotics.
For example, there’s a “method to his madness” when he talks about incorporating a morning protein shake into your routine. A little banana (and/or flaxseed, chia seed, berries, etc.) in the shake doesn’t just add flavor; it also furnishes prebiotics and helps provide satiety for hours. The lecithin granules in the shake aren’t just there to improve and protect nerve function, preserve memory, improve cholesterol levels, clear arteries, and protect you from liver damage. Lecithin is a prebiotic.
And, the use of xylitol as a sweetener isn’t just a safe, effective way to help control Candida yeast infections, prevent tooth decay, sinus, ear, and throat infections, and avoid blood sugar fluctuations that can lead to diabetes. Xylitol also happens to be a prebiotic. It is naturally found in some fruits and vegetables and it’s also produced in small amounts by the body. (Dr. Williams is not sure if he has mentioned it before, but xylitol is toxic to dogs, but not to cats, other animals, or humans.)
Help for a Common Prebiotic Problem
On the subject of xylitol, some individuals say they can’t use it because it causes gas, bloating, and intestinal discomfort. The same is true for many of the fruits, vegetables, and other foods mentioned earlier that are natural prebiotics. If you’re one of these individuals, there is a solution.
Understand that prebiotics will initially cause excess gas and intestinal problems when the pH of the bowel is abnormal. Excess gas formation is one of the primary symptoms indicating the need to reestablish the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. Probiotics are obviously needed and in most cases will solve the problem. However, if the pH of the colon is abnormal, it can make the probiotics less effective and the gas and abdominal discomfort will continue.
The ideal pH for the colon is very slightly acidic, in the 6.7–6.9 range. When there is an imbalance or lack of beneficial bacteria in the colon, the pH is typically more alkaline, around 7.5 or higher. The optimal pH range for gas-producing organisms is slightly alkaline at 7.2–7.3.
When someone starts taking a probiotic or a prebiotic supplement (or eats a prebiotic food), the beneficial microorganisms begin to increase in number. These good bacteria start to ferment more soluble fiber into beneficial products like butyric acid, acetic acid, lactic acid, and propionic acid. These acids provide energy, improve mineral, vitamin, and fat absorption, and help prevent inflammation and cancer. The extra acid also starts to lower the pH in the colon. As the pH passes through the gas-producing range, some individuals start to experience the problems I just talked about. If the pH never drops low enough to get out of the gas-producing range, eating that particular food becomes an ongoing problem.
Most of the time, continuing to take quality probiotics will eventually move the pH down to a point where these problems are overcome. In some individuals, however, it requires an additional step.
For decades, Dr. Williams has used a product called Lactic Acid Yeast by Standard Process Laboratories. Lactic acid yeast is a modified form of brewer’s yeast that works in your intestines to produce significant amounts of lactic acid. The additional acid stops the growth of harmful bacteria while allowing beneficial bacterial to flourish. It works rather quickly, and when followed up with probiotics, the results can be amazing.
I suggest chewing one lactic acid yeast wafer with each meal. In most cases, it will only be needed for five to seven days. During this time, I would also continue taking a probiotic. It’s one of the easiest and quickest ways to allow your body to adapt to any of the prebiotic foods I listed.
Lactic acid yeast wafers are also a godsend for stopping chronic diarrhea. By making the gut’s environment hostile to pathogenic bacteria and helping to increase anti-inflammatory fatty acids like butyric acid, these wafers provide a one-two punch against diarrhea. (Half a ground-up wafer works wonders for kids with diarrhea, too.)
Standard Process Laboratories typically only sells their products to physicians, but you can still find them online. Pure Formulas sells a 100-count bottle of Lactic Acid Yeast wafers for just under $20 with free shipping. Visit pureformulas.com/lactic-acid-yeast-100-wafers-by-standard-process.html or call 1-800-383-6008 FREE.
The Bottom Line on Prebiotics
If you include a variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet, you can ignore all the hype and hoopla about prebiotic supplements. Invest your money in a quality probiotic and fermented foods. These are investments that will pay daily dividends for a lifetime.