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Prebiotics - The plant food for gut bacteria

Probiotics need prebiotics

The number of people who suffer from gut complaints is astounding; it seems to be a modern day epidemic. Accordingly, in recent times gut health has been under the spotlight of public attention, as more people realise the importance of restoring a healthy gut biome and digestive system. After all, when the gut is well, all is well. If we get a bad feeling in our belly, it’s best to pay attention, what’s happening in our digestive tract can set the tone for our whole day. 

Probiotics have hogged the limelight, however, their equally important prebiotic co-stars are still waiting in the wings for people to realise just how vital and beneficial they can be for our overall gut health and ultimate well-being. Simply put, prebiotics are the food that our good gut bacteria need to thrive and keep us healthy. So if we focus on eating daily a diet rich in prebiotic foods and herbs, we will repopulate and maintain the probiotics in our gut. Throughout life, the richer and more diverse the micro biota, in our gut, the better we will withstand the threat of disease.

The Four-Part Gut Rebuild

There comes a time for many people that a complete gut rebuild is necessary to climb out of that recurring hole of malaise. What do people with food sensitivities, rheumatoid arthritis and anxiety all have in common? Poor gut health; from poor diet to excess stress, many factors can negatively impact digestive function, potentially resulting in increased intestinal permeability, systemic inflammation and the development of myriad health conditions. A complete gut reset is a process. The first step is to remove the irritants - pathogens and other inflammatory triggers, such as stress and chronic alcohol consumption, associated with increased intestinal permeability. That means removing alcohol, food additives (e.g. emulsifiers, solvents), food sensitivities, gluten, refined starches and sugar, saturated and trans-fatty acids.

Prebiotics are part of the second phase of replacing the irritants with anti-inflammatory, healing foods and herbs before the third phase of re-inoculation with probiotic foods or supplements can occur. Probiotics are found in fermented foods, such as kefir, fermented vegetables, fermented soy products like tempeh, miso and kombucha, a fermented tea. Probiotics in food are considered transient, as they do not persist in the human gastrointestinal tract. This is where the prebiotics come in, to help us sustain the precious probiotic populations. The last phase involves repairing the gut lining with specific nutrients and medicinal herbs that decrease intestinal permeability and inflammation like marshmallow, slippery elm and aloe vera.

So what is a prebiotic?

Prebiotics are specialised plant fibres that stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria in the digestive tract. Trillions of live microorganisms inhabit the human gut, known as the gut micro biota and these bacterial populations need food to flourish and optimise digestion. Prebiotics feed the good probiotic bacteria making sure these cultures get the fuel they need to really make a difference in our gut by stimulating the growth of bacteria like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.

Prebiotics are components of plant-based foods that cannot be digested; they mainly consist of fibre or complex carbohydrates like inulin that increases beneficial bacteria and decreases pathobiont or opportunistic microbes. (Inulin is used by some plants as a means of storing energy and is typically found in roots or rhizomes). We can find prebiotics in foods like garlic and asparagus, as well as prebiotic herbs like chicory and elecampane. Once eaten, they are degraded in the small intestine by healthy bacteria that grow and thrive on them. These are the "good" bacteria that our body needs to digest food and control "bad" bacteria or yeast (like Candida that causes thrush). Prebiotics are resistant to the acidic pH of the stomach, they cannot be hydrolysed by enzymes and also are not be absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract or fermented by intestinal micro biota.

The prebiotic building blocks

Prebiotics provide the gut with the wherewithal to sustain its own healthy populations of bacteria, which means we don’t have to rely on extraneous probiotic supplements to do this vital job. Many people tend to think that probiotics are the over-the-counter supplements our doctor may recommend to counteract the negative effects of an antibiotic and forget that probiotics are those good bacteria that should already be present in our gut.

Sometimes however, our digestive tract can be seriously damaged and depleted of all the beneficial gut bacteria due to illness, persistent dietary intolerances or use of certain medications like antibiotics. This is when we could indeed benefit from probiotic supplements that deliver healthy bacteria directly to our stomach to support the gut when it is most needy. However, if our diet is good, full of plant-based fibres and wholefoods including plenty of gut-loving herbs, our digestive system will sustain its own homeostasis and not give us trouble.

It takes a whole community to digest

To fully understand prebiotics, it’s helpful to first know how our gut is full of microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and viruses that constitute a gut micro biota. The human gastrointestinal (GI) tract contains an abundant and diverse microbial community that gathers more than 100 trillion microorganisms.

A healthy human gut micro biota can help us live a full, healthy and vibrant life. The collection of these microorganisms that comprise the micro biome could rightfully be referred to as a supporting organ in the body, because it is so critical to our overall functioning.

Each individual is provided with a unique gut micro biota profile that plays many specific functions in host nutrient metabolism, maintenance of structural integrity of the gut mucosal barrier, immunomodulation and protection against pathogens. We all know by now, how a healthy gut bacteria population improves digestion, eases constipation, increases mineral absorption, regulates cholesterol, helps weight loss, improves mood and reduces stress.

The rewards are persuasive

A healthy gut micro biota is also essential in fighting off infectious agents, being linked to a healthy immune system, endocrine system and cardiovascular system. So there are plenty of very good reasons to enhance our gut’s function and eating prebiotic foods and herbs will be our first step in our quest for gut health. In addition to their gut-health benefits, fibre-rich prebiotic foods offer a wide range of health benefits: they keep us feeling full for longer, help reduce the risk for certain cancers, and prevent blood sugar spikes. The beauty of fibre-rich prebiotics is that they ease both constipation and diarrhoea and restore healthy form and consistency to our poo, making evacuation so much better. Another benefit of prebiotics is that negative side effects are minimal. If a rare someone reacts with bloating or discomfort from food prebiotics, there is clearly a deeper imbalance at play. Any discomfort can well be countered by including carminative herbs like fennel, peppermint or chamomile in the diet. 

There are many types of prebiotics

Fructans: Includes inulin and fructo-oligosaccharide (FOS) or oligofructose.

Galacto-Oligosaccharides (GOS): Product of lactose extension, which can greatly stimulate Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli.

Starch and Glucose-Derived Oligosaccharides: Includes resistant starch; a form of starch that is resistant to upper gut digestion.

Pectic Oligosaccharides (POS): Oligosaccharides are originated from a polysaccharide known as pectin.

The majority of prebiotics are a subset of carbohydrate groups, mostly oligosaccharide carbohydrates. The two main prebiotics important to human health are: Fructo-oligosaccharides found in plants such as onion, chicory, garlic, asparagus, banana and artichoke and galacto-oligosaccharides found in beans and certain root vegetables and herbs. While prebiotics are generally found in carbohydrate-based foods, there are other compounds, such as cocoa-derived flavanols, which have been shown to stimulate lactic acid bacteria and we can classify them as prebiotics.

Prebiotic Foods

Fortunately, there are so many plant foods that contain prebiotics, however there are some foods and herbs that outshine with their prebiotic rich quality.

Some examples of beneficial foods that contain prebiotics:

  • Asparagus
  • Garlic
  • Buckwheat
  • Nuts
  • Cabbage
  • Onions
  • Leeks
  • Honey
  • Kiwi fruit
  • Beetroot
  • Sweet potato
  • Green bananas
  • Apples
  • Dates
  • Tomatoes
  • Peas
  • Chickpeas
  • Oats
  • Beans, especially red kidney beans
  • Whole grains without gluten
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Cacao, unprocessed and raw
 Nuts: The perfect prebiotic food

Nuts and nut skins are rich in prebiotic fibre that feeds the probiotic gut bacteria. A study found that around two handfuls (56g) of almonds a day for six weeks significantly increased growth of beneficial strains of gut bacteria.  Similar results have been found for pistachios. Nuts can offer protection to the probiotic bacteria by helping different strains of lactobacilli bacteria to survive stomach acids and bile.  This means they are more likely to make it to the large intestine intact where they do their good work.

Acacia senegal

Gum acacia or gum Arabic is a water-soluble dietary fibre that not only acts as a prebiotic, providing food for good bacteria like Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli, but it can also provide other benefits for digestion.

Burdock root Arctium lappa

Burdock root contains a high concentration of inulin/fructan (approximately 50%) and polyphenols that enhance the intestinal microbiota. Burdock is helpful for acute diverticulitis (inflamed pouches in the intestines).

Dandelion Root

Dandelion root is a rich source of the prebiotic fiber inulin, that reduces constipation and promotes the movement of food through the digestive system. It is rich in vitamin C and antioxidants which helps protect gut cells from toxin damage.

Spices: Fennel Foeniculum vulgare, Star Anise Illicium verum and Clove Eugenia caryophyllata

These spices have highly nutritive digestive properties that improve the absorption capacity of food in the gut preventing fermentation and wind developing. Their antioxidant and antimicrobial properties promote beneficial gut bacteria.

Cinnamon Cinnamomum verum

Cinnamon supports everything from digestion to glycaemic balance. It contains mucilage and tannins that soothe and tone the digestive tract tissues as well as stimulate blood flow to the digestive lining.

Ginger Zingiber officinale

Ginger root provides foundational gut support and relief from nausea and stomach pains. The constituents in ginger: gingerol and shogaol are rapidly absorbed in the small intestine and metabolised by human gut micro biota. Gingerol is the main polyphenol that increases the abundance of Bifidobacterium significantly.

Psyllium husks: Excellent source of indigestible fibre.


Demulcent herbs:

Marshmallow Althaea officinalis and Aloe Vera and Slippery elm Ulmus rubra, contain mucilage, a slimy substance that soothes and restores the integrity of the mucosal membranes in the intestines in the digestive tract. This creates a more conducive environment for the prebiotics to do their job.


Antiseptic Herbs:

Calendula C. officinalis, Meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria, Echinacea E. angustifolia, E. purpurea, E. pallida, Peppermint Mentha piperita, Thyme Thymus vulgaris, Sage salvia officinalis, Turmeric Curcuma longa, Nettle Urtica dioica.

Oregano Origanum vulgare

Antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory herbs are a necessary part of a healing gut protocol if dysbiosis (too much or too little gut bacteria), SIBO, fungal or yeast overgrowth, parasites or gut infections are identified as a root cause behind poor health. They are necessary to clear the gut of pathogens to maintain a healthy gut microbiome.

Agave Agave tequiliana

The agave plant contains a sweet sap that is concentrated to make the agave syrup that is rich in indigestible inulin, a prebiotic.

Spirulina Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima

Phycocyanin is the main active compound in nutrient rich spirulina. It has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that are greatly helpful for the gut. Spirulina promotes the growth of healthy bacterial flora in the intestines, which in turn inhibits candida from thriving.


Nervine Herbs:  Lemon Balm Melissa officinalis and Chamomile Matricaria chamomilla, Passionflower Passiflora incarnata

The enteric brain is a major part of the nervous system and often gut imbalances have their root cause in chronic nervous disorders like stress and anxiety. Including nerve tonic herbs in any gut formula constitutes a thorough and pertinent healing regime.


Relevant Tinderbox Products

Gut Lover, Power Detox, Tummy Settle Herbal Tea, Tummy Calm, Digestive Herbal Bitters, Dandelion Coffee, Cacao Maca Brew, Awakened Almonds, All Seasonings except Classic Mixed Herbs (contain garlic), Super Plant Vitality Powder

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