There is growing appreciation for the central role our gut health plays in our overall health. This relationship is complex, and research continues to inform our understanding. This presents a challenge for individuals seeking to leverage emerging studies to improve their health. Fortunately, understanding some key gut health concepts will give consumers the ability to personalize improvements to their digestive health.
Microbiome – the ecosystem of microbes inhabiting the digestive tract, containing helpful and not-so-helpful members. The composition of the microbiome is affected by diet, travel, and medical history, and can influence human health in numerous ways.
Probiotics – healthy living microbes (mostly bacteria) that are normal members of the gut microbiome. They consume parts of our diet that our bodies cannot digest. Sources of probiotics include the environment, unpasteurized fermented foods, and supplements.
Prebiotics – the fermentable fibers found in our diet, including inulin, other oligosaccharides, and resistant starch. Like all types of fiber, they resist our body’s digestive enzymes. Prebiotics are food for probiotics, stimulating the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut microbiome.
Fermented foods – items that have been processed by culturing with probiotics or other microbes. Fermentation breaks food down into more easy-to-digest nutrients and unpasteurized fermented foods can also be a source of probiotics.
Digestive enzymes – normally secreted by our body or by probiotics, digestive enzymes help break down food into forms that can be absorbed during digestion. May counteract the beneficial effects of some prebiotics.
Polyphenols – extremely diverse group of plant-derived substances that go undigested by our body, like prebiotics, but can be converted to bioactive compounds by the gut microbiome. Polyphenols are thought to underly some of the important microbiome-dependent benefits of fruit and vegetable-rich diets.
For most people, improving gut health requires a concerted effort that draws on multiple dietary aspects to help maintain a healthy microbiome. Introducing probiotics can be accomplished through dedicated supplements and the consumption of fermented foods, while feeding the microbiome means eating foods rich in prebiotic fiber and supplementing with resistant starch. Digestive enzymes may help individuals with sensitivities to certain foods but should be used with caution because they may decrease the benefits of prebiotics. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables will provide polyphenols, setting the stage for important communication between the microbiome and your body.
How should you use digestive health supplements? People who have taken antibiotics or heartburn medication might benefit from probiotic supplementation while those suffering from lactose intolerance might find that digestive enzymes bring relief. Supplementing with prebiotics ensures that the microbiome is well-fed and helps fill the fiber gap. Most people seeking to improve their digestive health will have an intuitive sense of what helps, and which efforts are of marginal benefit. Ultimately, digestive health supplements are like tools in a tool box – each person will assemble their own collection tailored to meet their personal gut health needs.