Probiotics and prebiotics are hot subjects in the nutrition world right now. Despite their similarity in sound, the two perform distinct roles in your health. Probiotics are good bacteria, and prebiotics are the good bacteria’s nourishment.
But what are they exactly and how do they work?
Prebiotics are plant fibers that have been modified to act as prebiotics. They serve as fertilizers in the stomach, encouraging the growth of beneficial microorganisms.
Many fruits and vegetables include prebiotics, especially those that contain complex carbohydrates like fiber and resistant starch. Because these carbs can’t be digested by your body, they travel through your digestive system and become food for bacteria and other germs.
Foods that are high in prebiotic fiber include:
Probiotics differ from other supplements in that they include living organisms, usually specific strains of bacteria, that contribute to the population of beneficial bacteria in your gut.
Probiotics, like prebiotics, can be consumed through food and supplements. Yogurt is probably the most popular probiotic food. Yogurt is manufactured by fermenting milk with microorganisms that are then left in the finished product. Probiotics can also be found in bacteria-fermented foods like:
Some types of pickles
Live organisms are also present in probiotic supplements. A single dosage may contain a single microbe strain or a mixture of microorganisms. Probiotic supplement companies, like prebiotic supplement companies, target specific ailments like irritable bowel syndrome.
Prebiotics and probiotics operate together. Prebiotics are living probiotics’ breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and they can enhance gut health. Including health-promoting functional foods — such as those that include both prebiotics and probiotics — in your diet will help you become healthier.
About 6-8 years ago, I started seeing weird things happen with my digestive system out of nowhere, and I’ve been battling it ever since. I went to a Gastroenterologist (GI) doctor to rule out serious issues such as cancer, gluten sensitivity, or other diseases. I have always been one to also attempt to educate myself as much as I possibly can (without having medical training) and really put the effort in to take control of my health.
When no specific cause is found for digestive troubles, it is usually ruled as Irritable Bowel Syndrome. That can be a relief in the sense that it isn’t serious, but it doesn’t take away the frustration that comes with not knowing how to actually treat it.
This is where my long journey started; the journey of understanding what the heck my gut is doing and why.
I had phases where I would eat primarily only fermented foods and take supplements such as licorice root (which has been used for reducing inflammation and injured mucous membranes in the gut) and aloe vera juice (inner fillet only) mixed with water, and of course, probiotics.
I will say that nowadays, the condition of my gut is better than it has ever been, but it is still problematic. I’m STILL trying to figure out what’s causing it. And with the research and trials I’ve done with my own body, I’d like to share with you what I know today, in hopes that it may help someone else.
Before I start, I will note that I have the type of IBS that alternates with constipation and diarrhea. I feel bloated at nights, as it feels though my digestive system is just slower to process food and it all accumulates and produces bloating and gas, and I’m back to normal again in the mornings. IBS has also given me small hemorrhoids, which only a couple times during flare-ups have produced minimal amounts of blood in the stool. The way this all started though years ago was that my bowel habits simply changed. I didn’t really have constipation nor diarrhea, but my bowel movements were just larger. If I could describe it intuitively, it seemed like my gut was acting more spastically and sporadically, rather than steadily processing food and waste.
There was a short time after that where my gut would go CRAZY all of the sudden if I ate eggs. Something I had always eaten. I searched that online of course, and it said it was a common symptom of leaky gut syndrome. So, I attempted to try to do things that would repair a hypothetical leaky gut. These days, I can eat eggs again just fine.
Also important: There is a huge gut-brain connection, and I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, major depression, and petit mal epilepsy. I 100% completely believe that these are linked to my IBS.
What I’ve Found Helps Significantly
Working on keeping stress reduced on a daily basis. There is a significant link between mind state/moods and the gut. There is an app called “Nerva” which is aimed at hypnotherapy sessions for IBS relief, and it has helped a lot of people. I have not tried it fully myself as the app is a bit expensive, but I plan to at some point. If the idea of hypnotherapy weirds you out, it’s more just like a guided meditation.
Elimination diet for a few weeks. Keeping your foods super bland, eliminating all potential dietary triggers such as gluten, dairy, and so on, for a few weeks. The idea behind this is to discover what kinds of foods are triggering symptoms. I personally have not found definitive and super specific foods that cause it, as sometimes my symptoms come no matter what. But there are TYPES of foods I can identify that my gut does not like. Usually greasy, low-quality foods. But there were also times where veggies like raw broccoli or cauliflower were hard to digest.
Exercise. Even if just walking for 20 minutes. This keeps the digestive system moving.
Only taking antibiotics when absolutely needed. No longer taking Cipro for UTIs (extremely strong antibiotic) but opting for another. Taking probiotics 2 hours after each antibiotic taken.
Psyllium Husk. I mixed a tablespoon of this in with my smoothie nearly every day. You can’t taste it. Personally, this helps my constipation significantly and I took it regularly for months.
Oatmeal. It has never triggered my symptoms.
What I’ve Found May Very Likely Be Helping (But Hard To Tell How Much)
Daily probiotic intake. One thing I STRONGLY recommend is getting a gut health test. I took one fromThryve. What this does is tell you what strains it identifies after you send in a stool sample. This then helped me narrow down what kinds of probiotics I should take. The results were actually right on, stating that based on my microbial makeup from what they could detect, I would be likely to experience anxiety, gas, and bloating.
HUM Nutrition – Flatter Me supplement. I think this has really helped me. Not only does it include all of the digestive enzymes to help break down protein, fats, carbs, fiber, and milk sugar, but it has an herbal blend of ginger root powder, fennel seed powder, and peppermint leaf powder which have shown promising results for those with digestive troubles.
Eliminating gluten (as it is a known gut irritant whether you’re allergic/sensitive to it or not) and dairy even if not lactose intolerant.
Being on antidepressants (believe it or not, Prozac and other similar drugs are sometimes prescribed for IBS). Mine were prescribed for anxiety, but they also could be helping my gut. Hard to tell.
Peppermint oil has lots of promising research behind it, but I don’t have enough personal experience with it yet.
What I Do Not Do
Rely on medications such as antacids or Pepto Bismol. This will, as you likely know, simply mask the symptoms but does nothing to treat IBS.
Ignore my diet and eat greasy, low-quality foods
I feel that altering my diet and stress has absolutely been the most impactful on my symptoms. You don’t need to do elimination diets or the low FODMAP diet for more than a few weeks. Past that, eating diets rich in whole foods and cutting out the processed stuff has SIGNIFICANTLY helped.
That being said, I am still trying to figure out the real cause of my digestive issues. It is very possible that it is an issue that is genetic, and/or linked with my epilepsy or anxiety and depression. It feels like this is closer to the answer than something like too much antibiotic use, only because I have only had one course of amoxicillin in a number of years now, and my GI doctor mentioned if it were a gut dysbiosis issue, it should have resolved itself by this point.
Are you experiencing similar digestive issues and would like to share what has helped you? Please do, in the comments down below, or shoot me an email!
Ever since I started having mystery digestive issues about 8 or 9 years ago now, I began researching all the different potentials for what could be wrong with me.
After ruling out anything serious, I made some dedicated attempts to try to fix what I thought was an imbalance of my gut bacteria. To this day, I still don’t know if that had much to do with the issue. However, with all the new research happening on the microbiome and how intricately linked it is to so many other parts of ourselves (our stress levels, various illnesses, the list goes on), I have decided to always pay close attention to my diet as well as antibiotic use.
I am someone who has petit mal epilepsy and generalized anxiety disorder. Something significant I have learned over the years is how truly linked all of our conditions can be. My anxiety could have come as a comorbidity with the epilepsy, and my digestive issues may have come from chronic high stress levels over time.
Additionally, about 12 years ago I began getting migraines regularly, primarily during my menstrual period. I learned that this can be due to a hormonal imbalance, such as too much estrogen and not enough progesterone, which can also occur from chronic stress. This was proven to me when I got a hormonal IUD inserted that made my body’s progesterone levels higher, and my migraines disappeared.
It’s clear that managing stress should always be a priority — and especially is a no-brainer in someone with an anxiety disorder. For me, it certainly is. And what a part of managing stress is for me is not just promoting relaxation through meditation, breathing techniques, etc., but making sure my gut does not get totally out of whack again.
Dr. Andrew Weil, a well-known and also one of my favorite doctors to follow, has recently written about the recent microbiome news in his 2020 issue of the Self-Healing magazine.
I’ll paraphrase two of the most recent findings he wrote about regarding the microbiome that I think are important to know:
There may be a link between your gut bacteria and your personality. The magazine states that “various types of bacteria previously linked to autism spectrum disorder were also associated with differences in sociability in those without autism.” The research showed that people who have large social networks and social activity were more likely to have higher microbial diversity.
The important thing about this is that people with more microbial diversity will typically have lower stress and anxiety levels.
Not too long ago, I learned about this myself when I took a gut health test from Thryve (https://www.thryveinside.com). You send in a stool sample, and they give you an overview of what kinds of bacteria your gut has, as well as a general picture of how healthy your gut likely is.
The really cool thing about this is that they will tell you what strains are out of normal range and how this could be contributing to your mental state, physical traits or other conditions. This test showed me in its overview that I was likely to have anxiety due to my microbiome. Amazing, since it’s 100% correct that I have anxiety, and I really didn’t realize gut bacteria (or lack thereof) could still be influencing this. From there they will formulate a probiotic for you, which I have been now taking monthly.
So for me it’s just a question of what’s influencing what quicker. Is my anxiety disorder itself affecting my gut and that’s the primary issue, or is my gut worsening my anxiety disorder? Regardless, definitely more evidence there that I should be taking care of my gut.
The Mediterranean Diet May Improve the Microbiome. For quite some time now, there have been plenty of research studies out there showing the benefits of the Mediterranean diet. Apparently, a new study about the microbiome is adding to the pile.
The Mediterranean Diet is one that focuses on eating fish, veggies, legumes, nuts, whole grains, and olive oil.
The study that was done took 612 older men and women, and half of them followed the Mediterranean diet for a year. What they found was that those who ate the Mediterranean diet had a more diverse microbiome than those who followed their typical diet.
This more diverse microbiome was also linked to better results when “testing for markers of frailty, or age-related weakness, including better walking speed, better handgrip strength, and improved cognitive functioning” (from “The Latest Microbiome News,” Dr. Andrew Weil’s Self Healing 2020).
More research is needed on this still, but it appears as though the Mediterranean diet can possibly improve microbial diversity through all of the nutrients that it provides, such as magnesium, B and C vitamins, potassium, iron, etc.
Overall, I’m happy that we are finding out new things pretty quickly on how important the role is that the gut microbiome is for our health. Given this fact and based on my own experience through digestive issues, I can’t stress enough importance on eating well with a diversity of foods, and include probiotic-rich or fermented foods regularly.
This is my all-time favorite cookbook thus far. I purchased it because with all of the strange, persistent bloating, the constipation, and stomach upset that I’ve had for the past year or so, I knew I needed something that would be soothing and anti-inflammatory for my stomach.
This book is based on the GAPS diet. I had heard about the GAPS diet before in doing research in how to treat a variety of stomach conditions. The full GAPS diet is very strict and can be difficult to follow. All ingredients have to be pure and wholesome. I haven’t fully submitted myself to it yet, but based on what I know now about gastrointestinal issues, I believe in its efficacy.
I’ve learned that most G.I.-related problems are hard work to treat, plain and simple. That is, if you really want to get to the bottom of it. They often require a permanent change in your diet which might mean giving up things you’re attached to. It can take a long time to adjust.
I’ve enjoyed the journey, though, because I’m interested in doing what’s best for my body, and I know I don’t have to compromise on foods I love, because there are plenty of amazing, healthy dishes you can make. I had already cut down coffee to one cup a day and added coconut oil to it, I had eliminated any fatty foods altogether and made sure most of what I ate was easy to digest. But, I needed more good recipe ideas. I really felt that soups that were dense with nutrients would help my stomach, and this cookbook is full of those.
Regardless, this cookbook is awesome whether you have G.I. issues or not. The recipes are healthy, straightforward, unique, and most are relatively easy to make. You’ll just want to put effort toward making sure you get wholesome ingredients. When you do, you really feel how healthy what you’re eating is!
Ginger Turmeric Tea… Yum!!
I make the Ginger Turmeric tea out of this cookbook at least weekly now. It’s simple. Just purchase fresh ginger root and turmeric, peel them and slice them up. Boil some water, throw some slices in of both (about half as much turmeric than ginger), 1 teaspoon of coconut oil (I use unrefined, virgin organic coconut oil for consumption), and honey if desired. That’s it! Just don’t go crazy on the turmeric and ginger, because you don’t need much!
Note: The above link is an affiliate link; if you purchase this book through Amazon, I get a small commission that helps to support this blog. However the book is solely recommended based on my own experience with the book.
Let’s start with this – gut health is really, really important, and science is just beginning to discover just how important gut health really is, since gut bacteria create neurochemicals such as serotonin, as well as create vitamins to keep your brain healthy. Hippocrates said that “all disease begins in the gut” – which of course not ALL disease does, but many metabolic disorders do.
I myself went through a random change in bowel movements not too long ago and also had persistent bloating for a few months (not the type of bloating you get periodically when your stomach is upset but rather constant, “I look like I’m pregnant” bloating) as well as developed chronic constipation after never having constipation in my life. However, this wasn’t constipation in lack of bowel movements – they were regular – but rather dry and difficult to pass ones. So, I’ve had months and months on end of trying to figure things out. My latest scare was that the chronic constipation then led to seeing blood in the toilet which ended up being hemorrhoids that was caused by the straining.
“It takes actual work to heal your gut”
Doctors can often help give you guidance with these things, but unless you end up doing tests like x-rays, colonoscopy, endoscopy, sigmoidoscopy or whatever the doc sees fit, then it can be really difficult to see what’s wrong with you. The digestive system is very complicated. Plus, those tests (especially colonoscopy) have their risks, so it is up to you to decide whether the benefits outweigh those risks. Unless surgery is required, many times what’s really going to heal it is your diet along with some supplements. It takes actual work to heal your gut.
After I saw the blood in the toilet, I was SO freaked out. I made a doc appointment, but I knew I needed to do something to not strain with bowel movements anymore. I was always nervous to try stool softeners or laxatives (many of them can actually irritate your gut and might treat the symptoms, but possibly even worsen the cause), and I knew just treating the symptoms wasn’t going to be enough. I said to myself as though speaking to my body, “please, PLEASE let me know what you need to heal. I don’t know what to do!”
It was at that point that I really started paying attention to how my body felt. Because I was scared. And unfortunately, sometimes it takes a scare like that to really get us to pay attention. To be more sensitive to what our bodies are going through.
Two Cups of Coffee Daily Was Irritating My Gut
I started taking whole organic psyllium husk, flax oil and coconut oil with daily smoothies which is helping tremendously, but I began to realize other important things about my body. I realized that my two daily cups of coffee that I down were actually irritating my gut (it took me like a year to see this. Sometimes we just don’t see what we don’t want to see). Coffee provides a laxative effect which I thought was good, but I felt and discovered that it was actually quite harsh (when you’re downing at least 2 cups of coffee a day like I was). When I looked up “coffee and digestive issues” on Google, it was FULL of research on this.
So if you are experiencing gut problems and you’re still drinking coffee, you have to cut it back. Just do it! It’s important to see how it might help. I cut mine back to one cup per day, and I drink it slowly throughout the day instead of downing it. I also add coconut oil to my coffee (see this awesome blog post from Wellness Mama for a great coconut oil coffee recipe), though I fully intend on switching to an herbal coffee alternative after I wean myself off of my drug.
Many times we’ll find excuses to keep doing what we want to do even though it may be harming us. I am a TRUE coffee addict. I’ve been drinking it since I was 13, drinking it at midnight never keeps me up; I love coffee. And maybe one cup of coffee isn’t such a big deal – but it’s important to just try cutting it back and seeing how you feel.
The Small Things Matter: Pay Attention!
When it comes to healing your gut, the subtle, small things matter. You really need to pay attention and tune into your body; once you do, you’ll be on the road to healing.
In the first part of my “Mystery of a Bloated Stomach” posts, I went over some tips I learned when dealing with a persistently bloated stomach with no apparent cause (and unfortunately many fears along the way of different illnesses such as ovarian cancer). This was not your regular type of bloat that came from water retention or eating too much. Seemingly spurred on by some kind of bug, I looked like I was pregnant for months (but bloating was diminished in the mornings upon waking up). So for this post, I wanted to write a bit about things I’ve discovered that have helped my digestive issues – which were mainly diet changes.
This will depend on what is going on with your body and where stomach bloat is actually coming from, but if you are experiencing atypical, consistent bloating, making some adjustments in your diet to see how your body reacts can be beneficial and a way to determine what might be going on with it.
When I had my stomach issues it was a literal nightmare swimming through a sea of information and a few different doctor appointments with no conclusive answers. These days, thankfully, my bloating has gone down almost entirely.
1) First…Cut Out All Fatty Foods
Get rid of the grease! If you end up having something like gastroparesis or general IBS symptoms, fatty foods (fried or greasy/oily foods) can very much make it worse.
2) Try Cutting Out Roughage Foods Your Body Has a Hard Time Digesting
For example, my digestive system had a really difficult time with anything like broccoli or cauliflower, or heavy fibrous foods. It almost just didn’t tolerate it. Try cutting these out temporarily and seeing how you feel.
3) Eat Bone Broth and Soups
Bone broth is all the rage lately. The great thing is there are many ways to season it and add things to it to taste awesome, and it really can give your digestive system a rest. Also, the amino acids in it (specifically glycine) are said to help proper digestive functioning. As an added bonus, bone broth is also easy and inexpensive to make! I’ll be writing later on how to make a great bone broth. You can sometimes find it in health food stores, too, but making it yourself is easy, healthier, and you naturally have more control over how it’s made.
For now, here are a few soups I used to make often in the midst of my digestive issues:
a) Organic Creamy Butternut Squash Soup
b) Bone broth made of grass-feed beef bones and plenty of vegetables
c) Low-sodium vegetable broth with cucumber kimchi, small pickled cucumbers, ginger, fish sauce, cilantro, some lemon, and spinach
4) If you aren’t sure if gluten is the cause (which is actually a really common allergen despite the gluten-free craze), try cutting out all gluten-containing breads and other gluten products and seeing how you feel.
While these diets are meant for specific digestive issues that you may or may not have, I definitely took away some knowledge from studying these diets and seeing how certain foods can affect digestion. The GAPS diet is super specific and if you have a digestive issue that warrants going on this diet, it is somewhat extreme and can be hard to follow. I adhered to some of the guidelines from the Specific Carbohydrate Diet just simply to see how I’d feel by doing so.
6) Eating Kimchi and other fermented foods as well as foods containing probiotics really helps (take a probiotic supplement, too!)
I found a Korean shop in my city that had a variety of different types of Kimchi. I’d then buy a ton of it and make soups with it (could also try using it with brown rice!). I also ate Faye Unsweetened Greek Yogurt for probiotics and would add fruit to it.
7) Consider seeing an integrative medicine doc (or functional medicine doc), or a naturopath who can give you a comprehensive stool test and treat your issues from a myriad of angles.
I found an integrative medicine doctor in my area who ALSO specialized in functional medicine (and she was basically the only one), which I liked because she can provide both Eastern and Western treatments. However, I ended up not even seeing her in the long run because my probiotic (called VSL#3) and diet changes were enough to fix the issue; granted, it took time and patience! The great thing about naturopaths (and integrative medicine docs as well) is the stool test they give you is typically much more comprehensive than the standard one you might get at a GI or General Practitioner doc.
Remember…Keep a Food Journal, Keep Your Patience, and Experiment With Diet Changes
Hopefully some or all of these pointers have been helpful. As mentioned, I went through quite a process with my digestive issues in trying to figure out what the issue actually was, where it came from, and how to treat it. I went to an OBGYN, a GI doc, and a General Practitioner, and no one could give me any solid answers. My tests I had done all came back negative; there was nothing that pointed to a definitive answer. Don’t get me wrong; this was good, yet as you can imagine it was pretty frustrating as well.
My GI doc said that it could likely be gastroparesis. I still think this might be the case, but who knows what triggered it. I didn’t have any procedures or scans done of the abdomen (colonoscopy, CT scan) because I didn’t want to if I could try curing it with diet and seeing if that would help first.
If you’re struggling with something very similar, the best thing you can do is keep a food journal and record what foods or activities trigger your issues the most and what times they are most likely to occur. Then, do some research and play around with your diet using the guidelines above.