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Prebiotics: food as medicine

Written by Amy Taylor | Thursday, 9 May 2019


We often hear about the powerful health effects of probiotics, particularly for our gut health, or when we’ve taken a course of antibiotics. But what about prebiotics? 

Prebiotics are an ally of probiotics and work to ensure the beneficial bacteria in our digestive systems have a healthy environment to live in and the food they need to thrive. 

Prebiotics are a type of non-digestible carbohydrate contained in some plant-based foods. When eaten, they remain mostly undigested as they travel through the gastrointestinal tract until they reach the large intestine, where they provide food for the beneficial bacteria living there. These bacteria break down, or ferment, the prebiotic foods, and as a result produce a range of beneficial compounds that protect us against disease. These compounds also assist in restoring the balance of the bacteria in our digestive systems and improving the absorption of foods and nutrients.

Probiotics contain strains of the living bacteria that rely on the prebiotic foods to survive. They are either the same or very similar, to the beneficial bacteria in our digestive systems, which is home to more than 1x10 13microorganisms, and more than 1000 species of bacteria. 

The health of these bacteria is a very important factor in our own health - but it isn’t one size fits all. The exact types and ratios of bacteria are different for everyone, and they are constantly changing, affected and influenced by our choices, exposures, history and experiences. Things like our diet, antibiotic use, and stress, are key considerations in maintaining their health. 

Ensuring we carry a diverse range of species is also an important aspect of the health of our microbiome. We can use probiotics to introduce new beneficial strains of bacteria, or to boost numbers, but it’s also important to include prebiotic foods in our diet to feed them and ensure their survival. This means that when we combine pre and probiotics we are supporting a symbiotic relationship (or one that is mutually beneficial), that also improves our own health. 

In a practical sense, prebiotic foods provide us with a way of using our diet to beneficially alter our microbiome and digestive health, improving our immune function, digestive function and bowel health. They also assist in reducing high cholesterol, our risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and improving fat metabolism. 

Research shows the health of our microbes is linked to our appetite, food cravings, food choices, and energy levels. So when our microbes are healthy, we find it easier to reach for healthy foods. A growing body of research into the gut-brain connection has demonstrated clear links between our microbiome and our mental health. This means that feeding our microbes – well– not only positively affects the health of our body, but also our mind and the way we feel. 

The healthier our bacteria are, the healthier we are.

It’s about balance, and this is something our body is continually striving for. If our bacteria are out of balance, it’s likely we will experience issues with digestion, and an increase in inflammation, which can cause a wide range of other symptoms. So by including some prebiotic foods in our diet, we can assist our body to restore balance and promote healing.

Prebiotic foods include garlic, onion, shallots, leeks, beetroot, fennel, savoy cabbage, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, snow peas and green peas. Prebiotics are also contained in fruits such as bananas, apples (especially with the skin), custard apples, persimmon, tamarillo, watermelon, nectarines, and white peaches. Prebiotic grains and legumes include oats, couscous, rye, barley, and wheat, as well as chickpeas, red kidney beans, lentils, nuts and seeds. 

If the prebiotic foods listed above are foods you don’t commonly eat, start with small amounts to give your body (and microbes!) time to adjust to the change. A sudden increase in these foods can cause side effects such as increased gas, bloating or digestive upset, so it is important to gradually increase your daily intake. It is also important to include a variety of these foods to help maintain a healthy range of species and strains. 

If you’d like some help or guidance, make an appointment to see a holistic naturopath or nutritionist (you can book an appointment at our Wellnation Clinics!). They can assist you with the knowledge and tools you need to help restore the balance and integrity of your digestive function and will also help in supporting you to make lasting and sustainable changes to your health. 

Interested in a Bachelor of Health Science (Nutritional and Dietetic Medicine)? Visit our course page for more.


Den Besten, G., Van Eunen, K., Groen, A., Venema, K., Reijingoud, D. & Bakker, B. (2013). The role of short-chain fatty acids in the interplay between diet, gut microbiota, and host energy metabolism. Journal of Lipid Research, 54(9), 2325-2340.

Feng, W., Ao, H. & Peng, C. (2018). Gut microbiota, short-chain fatty acids, and herbal medicines. Front Pharmacol, 9(2018), 1-12.

Mohanty, D., Misra, S., Mohapatra, S. & Sahu, P. (2018). Prebiotics and synbiotics: Recent concepts in nutrition. Food Bioscience, 26(2018), 152-160. 

Monash University – Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences. (2019). High fibre, high prebiotic diet for health individuals. Retrieved May 7, 2019 from

Westfall, S., Lomis, N. & Prakash, S. (2018). A novel polyphenolic prebiotic and probiotic formulation have synergistic effects on the gut microbiota influencing Drosophila melanogaster physiology. Artif Cells Nanomed Biotechnol, 46(2), 441-455.

Amy Taylor

Amy is entering her final semester of Bachelor of Health Science (Naturopathy)in Brisbane. She has a deep passion for holistic living and healing, and spends much of her time in nature, practising yoga, or exploring creative outlets. Her passion for naturopathy stems back to a childhood spent in beautiful Tasmania where she grew an appreciation for the wonders of nature, and a strong connection to plants and herbs. Amy completed a Bachelor of Journalism in 2007 and is a passionate writer. You can follow her Instagram @wildlikethesea.

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