The Importance of Prebiotics

Many years ago, when I started Alex on SCD (2003), prebiotics were “illegal,” as Elaine Gottschall feared that feeding gut bacteria would worsen their overgrowth.  We devoted SCDers avoided them like the plague.

Sometime around 2010 though, well after Elaine had passed away, I began to read more and more articles about the benefits of prebiotics.  First, let me define a prebiotic for you:  these are non-digestible fibers that feed beneficial gut bacteria.  (Some better known prebiotics are FOS and inulin.  You may have seen these combined with your probiotics in fact.  A combination product is called a symbiotic.)

I know, I know.  Several times in the last couple of weeks I’ve referred you back to my post on the crucial importance of fiber in your diet.  I realize that I’m starting to sound like a broken record.  But…just today I read yet another study that I’ll share with you in my next post. It’s just so important that I can’t help myself from harping!

Anyway, that one word – BENEFICIAL – changed my feelings about using prebiotics, especially since the accumulating research proved that it not only boosts levels of good bacteria, but also decreases levels of harmful ones.

Here’s a great summary of how it all works:

“Once FOS reach the colon, anaerobic bacteria ferment them to obtain energy and carbon for their own growth. During this process, these bacteria also generate short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which reduce pH in the gut creating a less favorable environment for harmful bacteria. As a result of the fermentation, there is an increase in the concentration of beneficial bacteria (bifidobacteria) in the large intestine, an increase in calcium absorption, an increase in fecal weight, and a shortening of gastrointestinal transit time, all of which help normalize bowel function….The production of SCFAs, like butyric acid, serves as the primary fuel for the cells of the large intestine and helps maintain their health and integrity, which can become damaged by C.diff toxins. Bifidobacteria are beneficial because they stimulate the immune system, increase resistance to infection and diarrheal disease, and enhance overall gut health.”[i]

A few years ago, I came across a double-blind 6-month-long study[ii]  of 30 patients with chronic diarrhea or abdominal pain who had been diagnosed with SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth).  All patients were treated with antibiotics for 3 weeks.  Then, half the patients received a symbiotic formula (probiotics + prebiotics) for half the month and antibiotics the 2nd half, while the control group only received the antibiotics.  After 6 months, the symbiotics group had significantly better reductions in pain, bloating, belching and diarrhea and, in fact, this group had a complete resolution of abdominal pain – while only half those in the antibiotic group reported the pain being gone.  I was pretty impressed with that.

Yesterday morning I read an interesting article[iii] describing recent research, expanding on what we know about the benefits of prebiotics.  In an animal model, prebiotics improved sleep (non-REM sleep (NREM), which is restful and restorative).  “’Given that sufficient NREM sleep and proper nutrition can impact brain development and function and that sleep problems are common in early life, it is possible that a diet rich in prebiotics started in early life could help improve sleep, support the gut microbiota and promote optimal brain/psychological health,’ state the researchers.”

As a parent of a young man with autism, with a history of inflammatory bowel disease and with a history of monstrous sleep problems (every day of his life)…well, you can imagine that caught my interest.

Back to this study: after stressing the rats, the researchers also found that those on prebiotics had better REM sleep as well, which is crucial for promoting recovery from stress.  (Apparently, those who get more REM sleep after a trauma are less likely to develop PTSD.)

Many foods are rich in prebiotics (like onions, garlic, jicama, avocados, and peas to name a few).  You can also buy prebiotics in supplement form.  (Just be aware though that it’s always a good idea to increase fiber intake slowly to give your body time to adjust.  Too much too quickly can lead to bloating and flatulence.)

One more thing I picked up yesterday, reading through some literature on prebiotics in preparation for writing this:  bifido bacteria levels apparently go down as we age.  As you know from my last post, I’m very anti-aging!  Prebiotics can make a difference.  So Mom and Dad…looks like it may be time for another supplement!  🙂 Whoopa!


[i] Sallit J. C. diff Prevention and Adjunctive Therapy with Prebiotics & Probiotics. Connections newsletter, Dietetics in Healthcare Communities, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Fall 2010; 35,2:1-8.

[ii] Khalighi AR, Khalighi MR, Behdani R, Jamali J, Khosravi A, Kouhestani SH, et al. Evaluating the efficacy of probiotic on treatment in patients with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)-A pilot study. Indian J Med Res. 2014;140:604–8.

[iii] From:

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