Sleep better: Eat onions (and other prebiotics)

This article was updated to reflect recent information on May 21, 2021.

Key takeaways:

  • Prebiotics feed the “good” bacteria that live in your gut.

  • Prebiotic compounds are made up of non-digestible plant fibers found naturally in many foods.

  • Adding prebiotics to your diet can provide numerous health benefits, including reduced heart disease and cancer risk.

[3 MIN READ]

Who’s your favorite dynamic duo? Do you prefer a classic pairing like Batman and Robin, Fred and Ginger or even Thelma and Louise? Or are Bert and Ernie or Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner more your speed? Whatever your answer, chances are good “prebiotics and probiotics” were not at the top of the list. But maybe they should be.

Prebiotics and probiotics are vital components of gut health. Although they sound similar, both play very different roles in keeping your gastrointestinal system happy.

  • Probiotics are “good” bacteria that live in your gut.
  • Prebiotics are a type of fiber that feeds the healthy bacteria.

We’ve put together a two-part series that looks at prebiotics and probiotics, outlines their health benefits and offers tips on adding them to your diet. This month we’ll focus on prebiotics.

What are prebiotics?

Prebiotics consist of non-digestible plant fibers that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria. Prebiotic compounds remain undigested as they pass through the upper portion of your gastrointestinal tract. They then travel through your small intestine and arrive at your colon, where they serve as food for your healthy bacteria.

Although prebiotics are available as dietary supplements, you can include them in your daily intake without adding any special pills, prescriptions or potions.

Although prebiotics are available as dietary supplements, you can include them in your daily intake without adding any special pills, prescriptions or potions. Be sure to talk to your doctor before making any dietary changes.

Prebiotics and diet

Eating the right foods can help your beneficial gut bacteria flourish. The best source of prebiotics is whole foods that naturally contain prebiotics. Prebiotics are found in a variety of raw fruits and vegetables or whole grains. Sources include:

  • Apples
  • Acacia gum or gum arabic
  • Asparagus
  • Chicory root
  • Dandelion greens
  • Honey
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Leeks
  • Legumes
  • Onions
  • Raw garlic
  • Soybeans
  • Tomatoes
  • Under-ripe bananas
  • Whole wheat

Some products have been fortified with added prebiotics, including baby formula, bread, cookies or yogurt. The label doesn't typically include the word "prebiotic" when listing ingredients. Instead, look for the following words to determine if your food contains the nutrition you’re looking for:

  • Chicory fiber
  • Fructooligosaccharides
  • Galactooligosaccharides
  • Inulin
  • Oligofructose

Health benefits of prebiotics

Research shows prebiotics can have a significant impact on your health. Studies from the National Institutes of Health show increasing your prebiotic intake can provide many health benefits, including:

  • Reduced risk of heart disease
  • Reduced risk of colorectal cancer
  • Less inflammation throughout your body
  • Improved immunity responses
  • Improved neural activity for better brain function and memory
  • Decreased likelihood and severity of allergic skin conditions such as dermatitis
  • Better calcium absorption
  • Balanced blood sugar levels
  • Prevention of irritable bowel disease

Researchers found a prebiotic-rich diet lowered stress levels, improved both brain function and sleep quality. 

Prebiotics release metabolic byproducts, some of which are thought to influence brain function, according to a study at the University of Colorado Boulder. Researchers found a prebiotic-rich diet lowered stress levels, improved both brain function and sleep quality.  And the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says prebiotics “may improve gastrointestinal health as well as potentially enhance calcium absorption.”

Health risks of using prebiotics

If you’re adding prebiotics to your diet, start with a small amount and gradually increase your consumption a little at a time. Too much at once can lead to unpleasant side effects, including:

  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea

A healthy gut with well-balanced bacteria is an essential aspect of maintaining an active, healthy lifestyle. Talk to your doctor about ways you can add prebiotics to your daily eating plan.

How do you maintain your #guthealth? Do #prebiotics play a role? Share your strategies for healthy eating with readers @providence.

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Find a doctor

The nutrition specialists at Providence can teach you about foods that promote gut health to improve your overall wellness and show you ways to add them to your diet. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can access a full range of healthcare services. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory or search for one in your area.

Related resources

Get relevant, up-to-date information on the coronavirus (COVID-19) from Providence.

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

We are all about food! The Providence Nutrition Team loves to talk about and share our expertise on how to help you find the right diet, food types and maintenance tactics to help you live life to the fullest...while also enjoying the best foods that mother nature has to offer.

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