What are they? How can they help me?
Prebiotics are specific dietary fibers that are selectively used as a fuel source by healthy bacteria that reside in your colon, promoting their growth. Prebiotics can also help reduce the ability of disease-causing microorganisms to populate the colon. Thus, prebiotics tend to improve the balance between healthy and unhealthy bacteria in the colon.
Fiber is a component of food that’s not broken down by human enzymes, and travels to the lower part of the colon. High-fiber foods include fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Fiber absorbs water and contributes to healthy bowel activity. A healthy gut is important for maximal absorption of nutrients, and is the first line of defense against germs that can make you sick.
Common ingredients that are prebiotics include inulin, fructooligosaccharide (FOS) and galactooligosaccharide (GOS). Examples of foods that contain prebiotics are onions, bananas, and artichokes.
When do I use them?
Fiber should be consumed every day with most meals. If you’re not used to eating a healthy amount of fiber and prebiotics, you may experience gastrointestinal discomfort (bloating, gas) initially, until the bacteria in your gut have adapted. Thus, in this adaptation period, you should avoid taking large doses of fiber before your workout.
How much do I need?
The U.S. Institute of Medicine recommends consuming 14 grams of fiber for every 1000 calories you consume each day. For example, if you consume 2,500 calories in a day, you should consume 14 × 2.5 = 35 grams of fiber each day.
No recommendation has been set for prebiotics, although doses of 1-5 grams per day have typically shown health benefits in research studies. Athletes should try to consume at least one daily serving of prebiotics.
More helpful information
There are many strains of bacteria present naturally in the gut, and studies have shown that changing your diet to include more prebiotics leads to a shift in the populations to include more of the healthy bacterial strains, at the expense of the less healthy strains. Because the colon contains a large amount of the body’s immune system as well, improving the balance of healthy versus unhealthy bacteria in the colon may have beneficial effects in parts of the body outside the gastrointestinal tract. Athletes of all ages, skill levels, and training schedules can benefit from consuming fiber and prebiotics, and having healthy gut bacteria.