Prebiotic Foods for Healthy Digestion and a Healthy Microbiome
I’m sure you know about probiotics. But do you know about the importance of prebiotic foods?
Prebiotics are a class of food not broken down in the stomach or small intestine. Instead they find their way, undigested, into the colon, where they are gobbled up by trillions of beneficial gut bacteria. Another way to say this is that they are fine dining for your probiotics. Due to their support of healthy gut bacteria, prebiotics have been found to support healthy digestion and assimilation of nutrients, better elimination, immunity, mood, and a healthy inflammation response.1
Once they arrive in the colon, they are fermented by the gut microbiome, promoting production of short-chain fatty acids, including acetate, butyric acid, and propionic acid. These three primary short-chain fatty acids have been shown to support immunity, gut epithelial health, and metabolic health. This means prebiotics support healthy blood pressure, blood sugar, fat metabolism, and liver function.1,2
95% of these short-chain fatty acids are absorbed by the colon, where they support gut immunity (70% of the body’s total immune system).2 Fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS), and trans-galacto-oligosaccharides (TOS) are the most common prebiotics, but other sources of fiber can act as prebiotics as well.
Some people cannot tolerate certain prebiotics and should avoid them while troubleshooting the underlying digestive weak link and fix the cause rather than only the symptom.
Fiber, like all foods, should be consumed in a seasonal fashion. Soluble fibers, which dissolve in water and become slimy, are generally harvested in fall to balance vata and resolve the dryness of winter. Insoluble fiber is generally harvested in spring and summer, and helps sweep excess kapha, or mucus, off the intestines.
This article will show you how to choose fiber-based prebiotics by season. Below you will find a list of the most common prebiotics, alongside their season of harvest and the dosha they are best suited to balance.
Prebiotic Foods that Balance Vata
Chicory Root | Harvested Fall: Balances Vata
Chicory root, known for its coffee-like flavor, is commonly used as a coffee substitute. 47% of chicory root is inulin, a powerful prebiotic. Inulin is known to support healthy digestion, elimination, and microbiome.3 Because it supports proliferation of beneficial bacteria and these bacteria make gas, be prepared to experience slight bloating when you start consuming chicory. With prebiotic foods, start with a small dose and build up slowly based on your tolerance as your gut bugs change.
Yacon Root | Harvested Fall: Balances Vata
Yacon roots are very similar to sweet potatoes and are rich in fiber. They grow in the Andean region of South America. Yacon roots are an abundant source of fructooligosaccharides (FOS) and inulin.4 Studies have found yacon root supports healthy regulation of the immune response, glucose balance, mineral absorption, and lipid metabolism. As a result, glycemic levels, body weight, and colon challenges can be reduced.4
Flaxseeds | Fall Harvest: Balances Vata
Flaxseeds are 20-40% soluble fiber from mucilage gums and 60-80% insoluble fiber from cellulose and lignin. Fiber-rich flaxseeds also contain powerful antioxidant compounds that promote healthy gut bacteria, regular bowel movements, and healthy weight loss.5
Prebiotics that Balance Pitta
Apples | Harvested Fall: Balances Pitta
Pectin, an active prebiotic, accounts for approximately 50% of an apple’s total fiber content. Pectin increases butyrate, the short-chain fatty acid that feeds the beneficial gut bacteria and decreases the population of harmful bacteria. It also supports a healthy lining of the intestinal wall.6
Apples are high in polyphenol antioxidants that support healthy fat metabolism and LDL cholesterol levels.7
Asparagus | Harvested Summer: Balances Pitta
Asparagus is rich in inulin, one of the more potent prebiotics. Asparagus, due to its high inulin levels and natural antioxidants, has been shown to promote friendly bacteria in the gut and support a healthy epithelial lining of the gut.8
Jicama Root | Harvested Fall: Balances Pitta (tropical)
Jicama root is low in calories and high in fiber, including the prebiotic fiber inulin. Jicama root helps improve digestive health, blood sugar, and immunity, due to its high vitamin C content.5
Prebiotics that Balance Kapha
Garlic | Harvested Spring or Fall: Balances Kapha
Garlic is high in the prebiotics inulin and fructooligosaccharide (FOS). Garlic has been found to increase proliferation of bifidobacteria in the gut, which supports gut health immunity.9
Onions | Spring or Fall: Balances Kapha
Like garlic, onions are high in inulin and FOS, which support healthy gut bacteria, break down fats, and boost the immune system by increasing nitric oxide production in cells.10
Leeks | Harvested Spring or Fall: Balances Kapha
Leeks, onions, and garlic all come from the same family and deliver inulin and FOS as their source of prebiotics. Like onions and garlic, they also support proliferation of good gut bacteria and gut immunity.
Seaweed | Harvested Spring: Balances Kapha
Seaweed is a powerful prebiotic. However, it is rarely consumed outside of Japan and other Asian countries. It is a natural prebiotic soluble fiber rich in minerals like iodine. Seaweed has been studied to support growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.11
Prebiotics that Balance Kapha + Pitta
Dandelion Greens | Harvested Spring + Fall: Balances Kapha + Pitta
Dandelion greens were once thought of as a nuisance, but are now recognized as a superfood, fiber source, and prebiotic. They are high in inulin and have been found to support liver and urinary tract health, immunity, regular elimination, and increased beneficial bacteria.12
Burdock Root | Harvested Spring + Fall: Balances Kapha + Pitta
Burdock root is high in inulin and FOS, promoting beneficial gut bacteria, liver function, regular bowel function, and immunity.13.
Prebiotics that Balance Pitta + Vata
LifeSpa Slippery Elm Prebiotic: Slippery Elm, Licorice + Marshmallow Root
This LifeSpa prebiotic formula is my go-to combination of prebiotic soluble fiber support to boost the shorty chain fatty acid butyrate and reset healthy epithelial function of the intestinal lining.
- Slippery Elm Bark
Slippery Elm Bark (Ulmus rubra) has long been used for digestive and intestinal concerns because of its lubricating and gut-protective properties.16
Along with its protective properties for the intestinal wall, it has been shown to support healthy antioxidant activity in the intestinal tract.15
Like licorice, it has a sweet taste and cooling action. It balances vata and pitta in the same way licorice does, but will increase kapha as a result of its more mucilaginous properties.
Providing a thick layer of protective mucilaginous herb that can cover the entire intestinal tract is the key to its success.
- Marshmallow Root
Marshmallow Root (Althaea officinalis) is perhaps the most demulcent of the three herbs in this formula. It has been studied to protect the stomach lining from excess acid and protect the intestinal tract from intestinal irritants, such as the toxic form of carrageenan.17
Medicinally, it has been approved by the German Commission E in supporting inflammation of the gastric mucosa, and for irritation of the oral and pharyngeal mucosa.17
Like both licorice and slippery elm, marshmallow is an insoluble fiber, which means it will not be broken down as it passes through the stomach and small intestine. This allows it to offer the gut, where most of the microbes reside, a handsome feast of fibers and nutrients.
Marshmallow is cooling for pitta, soothing and calming for vata, and, as it is mucus-producing, will increase kapha. Increased kapha is a good thing in this case, as we are trying to coat and protect the intestines over the course of a month.
- Licorice Root
Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is a classic Ayurvedic herb used worldwide as a natural lubricant for the intestinal and respiratory airways. Licorice naturally lubricates and soothes mucus membranes and, as an adaptogen, also helps protect membranes from stress, environmental irritants, and pollens.
Licorice may also potentially quell production of reactive mucus and support the function of other herbs when taken in combination.14
Licorice is calming for vata, cooling for pitta, and can liquify the mucus of kapha.
Jerusalem Artichoke | Harvested in Fall: Balances Pitta + Vata
The Jerusalem artichoke is an inulin-rich tuber and nothing like the common artichoke. It acts as a powerful beneficial bacteria-promoting prebiotic, immune booster, and blood sugar metabolic balancer.18
Barley | Harvested Fall: Balances Pitta + Vata
Barley is a popular cereal grain used to make beer. It is rich in beta-glucan, a prebiotic fiber that promotes growth of friendly bacteria in the digestive tract, stable blood sugar, and healthy cholesterol.5
Oats | Harvested Fall: Balances Pitta and Vata
Oats are rich is soluble fiber and act as potent prebiotics. They contain large amounts of beta-glucan fiber, as well as some resistant starch. Like barley, they promote growth of friendly bacteria in the digestive tract, stable blood sugar, and healthy cholesterol.5
Konjac Root | Harvested Fall: Balances Pitta + Vata
Konjac root is a tuber rich in glucomannan fiber. It is also known as elephant yam. Glucomannan promotes growth of friendly bacteria in the colon, relieves constipation, and boosts your immune system.5
Wheat Bran | Harvested Fall: Balances Pitta + Vata
Wheat bran is rich in arabinoxylan oligosaccharides (AXOS) and has been found to increase butyrate levels by 70%. It increases stool frequency while decreasing gas and bloat.19
Prebiotics that Balance Vata + Kapha
Cocoa | Harvested Spring + Fall, Balances Vata + Kapha
Cocoa beans are flavanol-rich prebiotics that promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria. Cocoa also supports the heart and circulation.20 Cocoa beans are reported to produce the “panacea molecule” nitric oxide in the colon, adding more cardiovascular benefits.5
Bananas | Harvested Year-Round: Ripe Balances Vata | Unripe Balances Pitta + Kapha
Unripe (green) bananas are also high in resistant starch, sugars that do not break down in the stomach or small intestine. They feed the gut microbiome with these resistant starches. They have small amounts of inulin, but as prebiotics they are most effective when unripe or green. They promote the growth of beneficial bifidobacteria in the gut.21
Are you eating enough prebiotic foods? What is your favorite source?