Most of us learned in high school biology that the colon plays an essential role in our digestive system. What most people don’t realize, however, is that the colon is also one of the most important participants in the immune system because it houses the body’s largest microbiota colony. Over the past few years, an increasing number of research studies have shown the importance of the colon and the microbiota. Studies also show the unique role prebiotic fibers can play in helping to stimulate growth of the microbiota, and more specifically, the selective growth of good bacteria (i.e. bifidobacteria).
Microbiota – What Does it Do?
A microbiota is “the ecological community of commensal, symbiotic and pathogenic microorganisms that literally share our body space.” — Joseph Lederman
Microbiota in the colon participates in a number of processes that impact one’s health. These bacteria catalyze two types of fermentation, depending on how the individual bacteria strains are nourished. If the microbiota prefers bacterial protein, then proteolytic fermentations result, which produce toxins like ammonia that have a negative impact on health.
However, if the bacteria thrive on carbohydrates (i.e. dietary fiber), then saccharolytic fermentations result, which have multiple health benefits. Prebiotics are important because they are carbohydrates that selectively stimulate the growth of bacteria that participate in saccharolytic fermentation.
It has been clinically demonstrated that chicory root fiber enhances calcium absorption, which reaches the bones and makes them stronger. Scientists attribute this to saccharolytic fermentation to the microbiota, which generates short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). The SCFAs create a more acidic environment in the colon, and inhibit acid-sensitive pathogens, which may enhance mineral absorption. SCFAs also chemically and mechanically stimulate bowel movements and send signals to the brain to indicate satiety. Bifidobacteria and lactobacillus (“good” bacteria) also take part in this fermentation and benefit the body by synthesizing vitamins.
Prebiotic Specifics: Inulin and Oligofructose
Inulin is a type of fiber the body uses as a prebiotic, meaning it will not be digested in the small intestine and it supports the growth of good bacteria in the colon. Oligofructose is a specific type of inulin that helps beneficial bacteria suppress the generation of potentially harmful by-products of protein fermentation. The root of the chicory plant is the best source of inulin as well as the most researched among scientists. There is only one other dietary fiber (not plant derived but synthesized) that is also classified as a proven prebiotic. This substance is called GOS.
The Numerous Health Benefits of Prebiotics
Scientific research on chicory root fiber has been ongoing for 20 years, and the prebiotic effect is clinically proven. Other plant-based dietary fibers may claim a prebiotic effect, yet none provide the scientific evidence.
Along with nourishing beneficial bacteria and improving bone health by increasing mineral absorption, prebiotics also improve intestinal functions, and lower the risk of intestinal infections. Prebiotics also benefit the health of infants and children. At birth, the gut of babies is sterile and microbiota begins to form immediately after birth. Breast milk contains a naturally high content of non-digestible fermentable oligosaccharides, making bifidobacteria and other beneficial gut bacteria the dominant flora in breast fed babies. Compounds like oligosaccharides are also found infant formula and toddler milk.
How Much Do I Need?
For adults, as little as five grams of inulin or oligofructose per day is enough to promote the growth of good bacteria in the human gut.
Regular consumption of prebiotic fibers can have numerous benefits for humans of all ages. These substances help maintain regularity and serve a vital role in helping the immune system fight pathogens in the body.