Learn the importance of fiber in your diet and how to pick the best prebiotic for you.
Troubleshoot Digestion, Immunity, and Health with Prebiotics
Both Hippocrates and Ayurveda told us, more than 2,000 years ago, that all disease starts in the gut.
This means that troubleshooting diet and digestion is the first place to start when addressing any health concern. Think about that… while this concept is now overwhelming backed by science, this simple, profound and ancient understanding of optimal health is still often overlooked.
Most modern-day digestive problems can be linked to a lack of dietary fiber and their prebiotic effects. In this article, I‘ll discuss the Ayurvedic prebiotic strategies for better digestion that are now backed by science.
First, Why Fiber is Important
But first, a quick fiber review. Refined and processed foods, common in an American diet, are chronically low in fiber.
According to recent research, in the United States, the average adult consumes only 12–18 grams a day of dietary fiber, whereas people in rural Africa, for example, subsisting on a plant-based diet, consume over 100 grams a day.
Getting enough fiber is critical for digestive health, but getting the right fiber is most important, because some fiber acts as a prebiotic to build a healthier and more diverse microbiome.
While all prebiotics are fiber, not all fibers are prebiotics. Fiber is any plant-based material that is not broken down by our digestive enzymes.
Learn how to Boost Immunity with the Right Fiber Rich Diet:
There are two kinds of fiber that humans consume:
1. Soluble fiber, which is soluble in water—think of the sliminess of oatmeal or soaked chia seeds. All soluble fibers are prebiotics.
Insoluble fiber is roughage, meaning it is not broken down by our digestive enzymes or the gut microbiome. Psyllium for example, is indigestible by us but needed for gut health and the microbiome. Insoluble fibers are not prebiotic, but they are also extremely important.
From the Ayurvedic perspective, it’s understood that we naturally get the right fiber if we are eating a seasonal diet.
2. Soluble fibers are mostly sourced from fall-harvested seeds and grains. The slimy nature of soluble fibers make them vata-balancing and needed in the winter. Insoluble fiber come from the cellulose in vegetables harvested in the spring and summer. They act as an intestinal scrub balancing both vata and pitta.
Prebiotic Science and Ayurveda
According to International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP), a prebiotic is any bioactive substance that is utilized by the body’s microorganisms to deliver a health benefit.
It was previously thought that prebiotics primarily offered health benefits that supported healthy blood sugar, calcium absorption for bone health, and a more diverse microbiome for improved gut transit time, but the science on prebiotic health benefits is exploding.
Prebiotics for Immunity
In a randomized, placebo-controlled trial published in the journal Beneficial Microbes, 258 healthy children age 3 to 6 years old were given 6 grams a day of a prebiotic during the winter cold season in order to evaluate the possible effect of prebiotics on the immune system.
Bifidobacterium–a known beneficial bacteria supporting immune health–increased in the prebiotic group compared to the non-prebiotic group during the 24-week intervention.
Prebiotics for Circadian Rhythms
In a 2021 animal study published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, researchers evaluated the benefits of prebiotic nutrients on disruptions of the body’s circadian clocks and found that ingestion of prebiotics is an effective strategy to increase a relative abundance of health-promoting microbes, improve a fecal bile acid profile, and therefore facilitate the recovery and realignment of sleep and diurnal rhythms after jet lag or circadian disruption.
Here we see, as Hippocrates and Ayurveda discussed, that the mechanism for helping the body cope with circadian stress is healthy digestive function and a healthier microbiome.
An improved bile acid profile is key to healthy digestion because optimal bile acid production regulates healthy bowel function, buffers stomach acid, and attaches to prebiotics and soluble fiber as a way to remove toxic material from the intestinal tract.
In a 2018 study published in the journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine, three Ayurvedic prebiotic herbs were put to the test.
Researchers measured the prebiotic potential of triphala, which consists of three fruits—amalaka (Emblica officinalis), bibhitaki (Terminalia bellerica) and haritaki (Terminalia chebula); Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra); and licorice (Glycyrrhuza glaba)—on 299 gut bacteria species.
They recorded an increased abundance of approximately 100 of the species tested, including beneficial Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, and Bacteroides. These three herbs also reduced the abundance of many undesirable species as well.
The researchers concluded that these three Ayurvedic probiotics support healthy function of the intestinal lining, or epithelium, and a diverse and beneficial population of gut bacteria, while naturally reducing populations of undesirable bacteria.
Triphala and Slippery Elm increased the abundance of butyrate-producing bacteria. Butyrate, or butyric acid, is a short-chain fatty acid that supports healthy gut function, beneficial bacteria, and gut immunity.
Licorice was found to boost the levels of propionate-producing bacteria, which is another important short-chain fatty acid needed for gut and digestive health.
At LifeSpa, I have used these three herbs with great success in supporting digestive and intestinal health.
Triphala is an effective bowel and intestinal toner that supports both a healthy intestinal environment and optimal peristalsis, or intestinal muscular contractions. Triphala is made up of three astringent fruits that can be drying and challenging to wean off once any digestive imbalance has been resolved, so I suggest combining it with slippery elm to add the lubrication the intestinal lining needs to support healthy elimination and digestive health.
LifeSpa’s Elim I combines triphala, slippery elm, and licorice for herbal intestinal support.
For more challenging cases, I suggest slippery elm, licorice, and marshmallow root—the three herbs in LifeSpa’s Slippery Elm Prebiotic. You boil the slippery elm, licorice, and marshmallow root to make a concentrated prebiotic mucilaginous tea that can be sipped throughout the day to support a healthy repopulation of beneficial and diverse gut bacteria.
Try one of these strategies and let us know how it goes!