You know probiotics are important to the health of your digestive system, your immune system, even your cardiovascular system. But many people taking probiotics—even top brands—are making a common mistake. You may be one of them, especially if you’ve forgotten that probiotics are living things. These good, microscopic bacteria need to eat, and you’ve got to feed them. Here’s what you should know…

Probiotics live in your digestive tract and other parts of your body. These bacteria shore up the efforts of your immune system to ward off illness, produce natural substances that improve the wellbeing of your intestines, promote heart health, and represent a front-line defense against harmful pathogens. But probiotics can’t survive without feeding on prebiotic fiber.

And research now shows that consuming prebiotic fiber not only improves the health of your probiotic bacteria, it offers a wealth of health benefits on its own.

Bouncing Back From Jet Lag and Lack of Sleep

A study at the University of Colorado at Boulder shows that a healthy dose of prebiotics can help you cope more effectively when your daily rhythms are disrupted by jet lag, pulling an all-nighter to study or work, or just staying up a little too late.1

The researchers refer to these challenges as “circadian disruption” because they can interfere with your body’s daily cellular functions. And their findings demonstrate that consuming prebiotics not only helps bring your gut bacteria into proper balance, but it also influences your brain and behavior.

The Colorado research, which was done on animals, tested the effects of the prebiotics galacto-oligosaccharides and polydextrose. In their two-month experiment, the scientists had animals experience lifestyle disruptions the equivalent of traveling half-way around the world every week. Then they compared what happened to the health of the animals consuming prebiotics compared with those who went without.

The animals that ate prebiotics were able to adjust their sleep-wake cycles to their new environment more quickly and successfully. Their digestive tract bacteria remained more stable and their core temperature (which rises and falls according to the time of day) also adjusted more readily.

According to the researchers, the prebiotic diet also helped support the growth of a variety of health-promoting bacteria in the digestive tract including Ruminiclostridium 5, which promotes better sleep, and Parabacteroides distasonis, which helps maintain a healthier weight and metabolism.2

Fighting Inflammation

Prebiotics have also been shown to help control inflammation while potentially lowering the risk of cancer and infections.

According to research at the University of Missouri-Columbia, when you consume prebiotics, you increase the activity of digestive bacteria that leads to the release of the bile salt-hydrolase. And that natural compound decreases harmful inflammation while protecting against colon cancer and urinary infections.3

“We show for the first time that certain types of prebiotics alone are capable of increasing bile salt-hydrolase activity of the gut microbiota, which among other health benefits has been shown to decrease inflammation, reduce blood cholesterol levels, and protect against colon cancer and urinary tract infections,” says researcher Elena Goun PhD. “In my opinion, this discovery is huge because the production and storage of prebiotics is less expensive than with probiotics.”

Eat Healthier with Prebiotics

Other studies of prebiotics demonstrate that they can:

  • Help you cut back on sugar cravings more easily and eat a better diet: Research at the University of Surrey on women who took the prebiotics galacto-oligosaccharides for a month found that they just naturally ate less sugar – without being told to change what they ate.4 
  • Help in weight loss: A study at the University of Calgary in Canada found that giving overweight kids a daily prebiotic supplement helps them lose weight and body fat.5 The researchers believe that further research into prebiotics will help prove that prebiotics can offer a dependable strategy for losing weight.
  • Offer emotional support: When researchers in England reviewed seven studies on the effect of probiotics and prebiotics on depression, they found evidence that either one or both could improve mood.6 

Fortunately, getting more prebiotics is easy. If you want to increase your prebiotic consumption, supplements are available that include the prebiotics inulin, fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), and galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS). Foods that are high in prebiotic fiber include apples (eat the peels), asparagus, garlic, onions, Jerusalem artichokes, bananas, and oats.