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Gut Check: Prebiotics Might Be as Important as Probiotics

by Katie Moritz
May 11, 2017 | Health

By now you've probably heard about the benefits of probiotics, "good bacteria" that lives in the gut and helps with digestive health (if nothing else you've seen those Activia commercials). Maybe you even take a probiotic supplement every day (good on ya). But scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder have recently discovered that having a healthy level of what they call "prebiotics"—food for the good bacteria, that is—can have benefits as well.

Prebiotics pbs rewire

The benefits of prebiotics extend beyond digestive health into the realm of mental health, the Colorado study found. Prebiotics are dietary fibers found in artichokes, raw garlic, raw asparagus, onions, underripe bananas, chicory and leeks, among other foods.

When good gut bacteria digest prebiotic fibers, they multiply, which is good for digestive health, but they also release byproducts that research suggests can bolster brain function, improving sleep and preventing stress, said physiology professor Monika Fleshner, the study's lead author, to the university.

Super fiber to the rescue?

By studying rats on a prebiotic diet, the researchers learned that prebiotics could promote both non-rapid-eye-movement (REM) and REM sleep. Non-REM sleep is restful and restorative, while REM sleep has been shown to promote recovery from stress.

The rats who ate the prebiotic diet got more non-REM sleep than the rats who didn't. And after they were exposed to a stressful situation, the rats on the prebiotic diet spent more time in REM sleep, too. Research shows that people who get more REM sleep after a trauma are less likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, researchers wrote.

The prebiotic diet also seemed to prevent the rats' gut bacteria from getting out of whack when they were stressed out, something that's also been shown to happen in humans, they wrote.

Prebiotics pbs rewire

"Given that sufficient NREM sleep and proper nutrition can impact brain development and function and that sleep problems are common in early-life, it is possible that a diet rich in prebiotics started in early-life could help improve sleep, support the gut microbiota and promote optimal brain/psychological health," the researchers wrote in their findings.

While the researchers say they can't yet definitively recommend prebiotics at a sleep aid, eating foods rich in prebiotics "can't hurt and it might help," Fleshner said.

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2020. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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