Everybody is talking about prebiotics at the moment. Prebiotic supplements are becoming increasingly popular, rivaling probiotics in many ways. This makes sense; gut health is one of the most exciting topics in bio-hacking right now. For a long time, the gut microbiome has been largely overlooked, its physiological importance restricted to digestion and gut health.
But we now know that your gut microbiome holds tremendous sway over your entire body, from your immune system to your brain.
As we learn more about how the gut affects the body and the mind, the potential for human enhancement is becoming increasingly clear. By enhancing the gut microbiome, we can optimize many different aspects of health and performance.
One of the best ways to optimize the gut, and thus to enhance so many different aspects of human performance, is to up your intake of prebiotics. In our opinion, prebotic supplements represent the single best solution for improving gut microbiome health.
In this guide to prebiotic supplements, we’re going to examine a key questions:
- What are prebiotics?
- How do prebiotics work?
- What are the benefits of using prebiotics?
- How are prebiotics and probiotic related?
- What is the best prebiotic supplement on sale today?
- Who should use a prebiotic supplement?
- What foods contain the most prebiotic fiber?
- Are prebiotic supplement safe?
In the sections below, we’ll answer each of these questions in as much detail as we can. Since most of you have come here looking for the best prebiotic supplement to use today, we’ll start with that!
The best prebiotic supplement 2020
#1 Best Prebiotic – Performance Lab Prebiotic
The best prebiotic supplement right now is, without question, Performance Lab Prebiotic.
There are lots of things we love about this gut health supplement. It is, in many ways, the complete package, scoring high on every measure in our review process. But where it really stands out from the crowd is in regard to its ingredient quality.
Performance Lab Prebiotic goes above and beyond when it comes to using high-quality ingredients.
Instead of the usual gram or so of standard dietary fiber you get from low quality prebiotics, or even the gram of Inulin-FOS you get from good quality prebiotic, Performance Lab delivers 2g of Orafti Synergy1 Inulin-FOS. This is the gold standard when it comes to prebiotic fibers. An enhanced, reinforced fiber, Orafti Synergy1 Inulin-FOS has been shown to drastically promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria species, more so than other prebiotic fibers. In one trial, Performance Lab Prebiotic’s fiber was shown to increase the proportion of Bifidobacterium in your gut from 20% to over 70%, which is the ideal level for optimal health!
On top of this, Performance Lab use prebiotic, 100% plant-derived capsules to deliver their supplements, meaning Prebiotic is encased in a prebiotic. No other manufacturer – to our knowledge – goes this far to promote gut microflora health.
How we rank prebiotics
What is the best prebitoic supplement on the market right now?
The answer to that question depends on what you’re looking for in a prebiotic supplement, or in a gut-health supplement for that matter.
For some people, price is everything; the cheaper a product, the better (so long as it works to a degree).
For others, money is no object; for them, the best prebiotic is the one that fixes their digestive issues, promotes a healthy gut microbiome, and offers the best side effect profile.
For us, price does factor into our rankings, but by far and away the biggest factor is efficacy – IT HAS TO WORK!
We place a heavy emphasis on effectiveness when doing our supplement reviews; if a supplement fails to deliver the benefits it explicitly promises, then it will receive a low score.
Another factor we consider carefully is safety; if we believe a product exposes users to significant side effect risks, it will never receive a high score, even if it looks like it will deliver all promised benefits.
In conducting our reviews, we ask ourselves a series of questions which are broadly the same each time:
- Does it work?
- Does it do everything it says it can?
- Have the ingredients been independently verified in clinical trials?
- Is it safe?
- What are the short-term side effect risks?
- Is it good value for money? Are similar supplements more expensive?
- Is there a better option for the same goals?
We try to answer each of these questions as thoroughly as we can when reviewing a prebiotic supplement.
When we have, we give the supplement a score on each of the four main measures of supplement quality: short-term effects, long-term effects, price, and safety. Then we average those scores, giving us a total for the prebiotic supplement in question.
Ranking prebiotics in this way gives you a much better understanding of why a supplement has been placed at number 1, and it allows you to compare other prebiotics yourself.
What are prebiotics?
Prebiotics are a class of nutrients which feed your gut bacteria.
To give the word a more formal definition, prebiotics are “nondigestible food ingredients that beneficially affect the host by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of one or a limited number of bacteria in the colon, thus improving host health” (source).
Let’s unpack that a little!
Prebiotics are water soluble fibers which pass through the small intestine and into the colon largely undigested by stomach acids and digestive enzymes. Once in the gut, they are feasted upon and fermented by your gut microflora.
Usually when we’re talking about prebiotics, we’re talking about types of fiber which are known to particularly – or exclusively – nourish gut bacteria species most conducive to health. All fiber is good for the gut, but there is a subgroup of fiber thought to be particularly good for nourishing healthy gut microflora; these are what we call prebiotics.
In other words, prebiotic supplements will (or rather should) only provide fibers known to promote the growth and proliferation of “good” gut bacteria, which then brings about health benefits in the host – you.
The notion of “host health” is central to what makes a fiber a prebiotic.
But how do these prebiotic supplements affect gut microflora?
How prebiotics work
Prebiotics positively change your gut microbiome.
They may alter the composition of your gut microbiome, shifting the balance between different bacteria in favor of the healthiest species. Or a prebiotic supplement may alter the activity of existing gut microflora, making them more robust, healthuier, and more likely to thrive.
The effect that a good prebiotic supplement can have on your gut microbiome is probably far greater than you realize. We now know that prebiotics can change both the composition and the function of intestinal microbial “communities” (source).
The best prebiotics will work side-by-side with probiotics, promoting the survival of beneficial bacteria species introduced by the probiotic supplement.
Ultimately, prebiotics will always have longer lasting effects than a probiotic. But using a prebiotic supplement alongside a probiotic will ensure that the improvements in digestive health you get from a probiotic will remain after you stop taking it. Again, clinical studies have confirmed this effect.
This is all very encouraging. But how do prebiotics actually benefit you?
Benefits of using prebiotic supplements
Many of the benefits of using prebiotic supplement center, obviously, on the gut. Prebiotics first and foremost promote digestive health. There is a lot of clinical evidence to support this claim.
For instance, this paper highlights the many ways in which prebiotic fiber consumption can mitigate infections and reduce colon cancer risk. The short-chain fatty-acids released when bacteria break down fiber in the colon act as ready energy source for your colon mucosa. This in turn strengthens immune response to infection in the gut and may also suppress tumor growth in the colon.
But prebiotics also have many benefits that extend far beyond the gut, affecting every aspect of health and performance.
Gut microbiome composition has a direct effect on glycemic control and insulin sensitivity. Clinical data shows that antidiabetic drugs like metformin considerably alter the composition of the gut microbiome (source). This has led some researchers to suggest that prebiotic/probiotic interventions might significantly improve patient outcomes in the context of diabetes and obesity (source).
It may come as a surprise to many to learn that your gut microbiome also has a direct effect on your brain. The gut and the brain are intimately linked. As this paper explains, the “gut-brain axis” is a bidirectional relationship between the central nervous system (CNS) and the gut, which is home to the enteric nervous system (also called the “second brain” due to its incredibly high concentration of neurons).
The enteric nervous system in the gut interacts with the CNS via the Vagus Nerve. Gut microflora modulate the synthesis of certain neurotransmitters in the enteric nervous system (located in the gut). This then influences the neurochemistry of the brain, which can affect everything from focus and learning to anxiety levels and mood.
The effect that the gut has on cognitive function is substantial; studies have found that a healthier gut microbiome correlates to a better memory (source).
The relationship is bi-directional; an imbalanced gut microbiome can cause anxiety and poor cognitive function, and high stress levels can cause an upset digestive system. The next time you feel your stomach churning before a big presentation, you can thank the Vagus Nerve and the Gut-Brain-Axis.
Clinical trials have also shown that manipulating the gut microflora of humans can alter the way the immune system works as a whole (source). The researchers who wrote the cited paper even suggested that the prevalence of autoimmune diseases and chronic inflammation-linked illness in the developed world can be blamed on highly-prevalent gut microbiota issues.
So your gut doesn’t just digest your food. It is active in regulating a staggering array of bodily functions.
Prebiotics can therefore produce several incredible benefits, including:
- Improved resistance to gut infections
- Better nutrient absorption
- Improved blood sugar control
- Improved insulin sensitivity
- Better weight management
- Enhanced immune system
- Better cognitive function (including memory and learning)
- Improved mood
- Reduced inflammation
Prebiotics vs probiotics: Which is best for gut health?
Both probiotics and prebiotics are used for gut microbiome optimization.
Both probiotics and prebiotics work to promote the proliferation of healthy gut bacteria at the expense of harmful gut bacteria.
However, prebiotics and probiotics work slightly differently.
Probiotics introduce exogenous (from outside your body) bacteria species to the gut. The word probiotics actually means “bacteria species known to positively influence gut microflora and corresponding digestive health”.
While most probiotics are species naturally extant in the gut, many are not; instead, these species are known to compete with harmful bacteria for nutrients. The idea is that these bacteria starve harmful bacteria species, allowing beneficial, healthy bacteria to thrive in their place.
Prebiotics, on the other hand, work differently. As we already explained, prebiotics are fibers which selectively feed healthy gut bacteria already alive in your colon. The best prebiotic supplements – like Performance Lab Prebiotic – will selectively nourish bacteria species known to be most conducive to health, such as Bifidobacterium, while leaving harmful species to starve.
So which is better for gut health? Which supplement is more sustainable long-term – probiotics or prebiotics?
We think it is pretty clear that prebiotics are both more effective than prebiotics when it comes to optimizing gut health, and more suitable for long-term use.
Probiotics introduce lots of different bacteria species at once, some of which are not naturally found in large amounts in the gut. This can easily cause more problems than it solves, and side effects from probiotics are common.
Conversely, the best prebiotics nourish the healthy bacteria already in your gut, allowing them to thrive, proliferate, and ultimately dominate your microbiome.
This is a much safer and ultimately more effective way of promoting good gut microbiome health for the long-term, which is really what your goal should be.
Are prebiotics safe?
Generally speaking, prebiotics are extremely safe. They are certainly much safer than probiotics, all things being equal.
Prebiotics are simply carbohydrate compounds (typically water-soluble fibers) which nourish gut bacteria species known to be most beneficial for health. Consuming extra fiber, particularly in the relatively small amounts found in high-quality prebiotics, is unlikely to cause any adverse effects.
On the contrary; the health benefits of consuming more prebiotic fiber are both well-established and extensive.
That said, people still do sometimes experience mild side effects when they first start using prebiotic supplements.
The average user of a prebiotic supplement is likely to be someone who has a diet low in fiber and high in foods damaging to the microbiome. As such, introducing a prebiotic can make big changes to your gut microbiome, which can cause some side effects.
Common side effects of prebiotics include:
- Stomach cramps
These side effects are the product of a rapidly changing gut microbiome. If you aren’t used to eating much fiber, then introducing any new fibers to your diet – especially ones known to act like fertilizer to gut bacteria – will have big impacts.
These side effects should be mild and transient, lasting no longer than a week.
If you experience severe side effects while using a good prebiotic supplement, stop using it immediately and seek medical attention.
What are the best prebiotic foods?
Prebiotic supplements are not the only way to get more prebiotic fiber into your diet. Prebiotic supplements are, after all, just convenient ways to get more fiber into your diet, but they are ultimately derived from foods.
The best prebiotic supplements are obtained from foods that you cannot eat on a regular basis; they’re unusual and, being so dense in prebiotic fiber, are very difficult to eat.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t get plenty of prebiotics from your regular diet too. There are lots of foods packed full of prebiotics.
Here are the best prebiotics foods for optimal gut health:
- Chicory root
- Artichokes (particularly Jerusalem artichokes)
Eating these foods on a regular basis will foster an environment that promotes healthy gut bacterial growth, which means better digestion, better blood sugar control, better weight management, and better cognitive function.
Should I take a prebiotic with a probiotic?
Prebiotics and probiotics work tremendously well together. In our opinion, a prebiotic works fine without a probiotic (depending on your circumstances), but a probiotic should always be taken with a prebiotic. This is because you should be fostering an environment in which the newly introduced bacteria can thrive. Taking probiotics without changing your diet just means you’ll have to keep taking probiotics indefinitely, which isn’t safe!
What is the best time to take prebiotic supplements?
It doesn’t matter when you take a prebiotic supplement. The fiber will still reach your colon undigested were it will be fermented by healthy gut bacteria. It might be optimal to take it at the same time each day, just to create a routine. Taking it at night might also cause sleep disruption if you experience any initial bloating. But taking a prebiotic supplement in the morning rather than at night confers no extra benefit.
What are the best prebiotic foods?
The best prebiotic food is anything that provides a lot of water soluble fiber which can be fermented by your healthy gut bacteria. Foods which have been found to be particularly good for promoting good gut bacteria are bananas, artichokes, garlic, leeks, asparagus, and chicory root (this last one being the best of the best).
Who should use prebiotic supplements?
Prebiotic supplements are ideal for anyone who wants to optimize their gut microbiome for health and performance. Most of the people reading this will have a diet that is less than optimal for promoting a healthy gut. Few of us eat enough fiber, and most of us consume lots of alcohol, red meat, and processed foods; things which all hurt your healthy gut bacteria. If you want to improve the health of your gut microflora, then a prebiotic supplement can really help. They are especially useful for people who struggle to eat large quantities of fiber each day, or people who undergo prolonged fasts.
Who should take probiotic supplements?
Probiotic supplements are for people with specific gut microflora imbalances which need to be addressed by introducing foreign bacteria species. Probiotics are far ore fast-acting and much more specific than prebiotics. As such, they are recommended for people with specific, identified gut microflora imbalances and known gut issues. For optimal results, they should only be used for a limited period and in conjunction with a prebiotic.
Who should not take probiotics?
Who shouldn’t take probiotics? An honest answer tot his question is “anybody who has not properly identified their gut microflora imbalance”. Probiotics can cause imbalances of their own if introduced to a gut already tipped too much in one direction. They can make matters a lot worse in people with chronic digestive disorders too. In our opinion, probiotics should only be used after seeking proper medical diagnoses first.