Modern science has found that the majority of our body’s immune system originates in the digestive system—60-70%1 according to some estimates. The problem is that colonic digestive and immune functions decline with age, contributing to disease throughout the body.
Prebiotics are a class of nutrients that help immune-supporting bacteria to proliferate in the colon. They have been shown to optimize immune function, generating a broad array of health benefits. Cutting-edge clinical research indicates that they help to combat cancer and bone loss, and even lower cholesterol levels.
Prebiotics Complement Probiotics
Billions of bacteria inhabit the colon. Many of these healthy bacteria enhance immune function and prevent diseases in parts of the body beyond the digestive tract, including Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli.2,3
Probiotics are dietary supplements that contain billions of these and other “beneficial” bacteria in living form. They are ingested and eventually deliver beneficial bacteria into the colon, where they increase in number and amplify their health-promoting effects.4,5
Prebiotics complement the action of probiotics. They are nutrients that support the growth of beneficial bacteria already residing in the colon.4
Scientists have found that complex carbohydrate molecules rank among the most effective of pre-biotic nutrients. The chemical bonds that hold these carbohydrates together are especially resistant to the onslaught of acids and enzymes aimed at breaking down the food we eat.
Advanced Prebiotic Technology
The science of developing and formulating pre-biotics has significantly advanced over the past decade. Optimal prebiotic formulations can now be customized, using finely calibrated molecular components to create targeted effects.
The latest research shows that prebiotic carbo-hydrates contained in the fiber of the agave plant are optimally complex, enabling them to reach the colon intact. They also take longer to break down in the colon. In laboratory studies, they have been shown to stimulate the growth of both Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli more rapidly and efficiently than other prebiotic compounds.6
Ample clinical evidence indicates that supplement-ing with prebiotics results in a broad spectrum of multi-modal benefits.
As populations of useful bacteria decline over time, bowel-specific immunity and general immune system function deteriorate.7,8 The immune system’s overall ability to fight infection and cancer wanes, while inappropriate immune responses, including excessive inflammation, increase.9 The prebiotics that provide such broad-spectrum digestive support also turn out to have powerful immune-modulating characteristics throughout the body.10 They can both boost appropriate infection- and cancer-fighting immune functions,11 and also help to suppress the inflammatory response when it gets out of control.
Compelling results come from a study of critically ill trauma patients, people in whom both excessive inflammation and serious infections cause devastating effects. This study used a combination of probiotic bacteria plus a combined prebiotic formula including complex carbohydrate and resistant fiber.12 The supplemented patients had significantly reduced rates of infections, and also had lower rates of the disastrous systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS), which is a major killer of trauma victims who survive the initial accident. Fewer supplemented patients died, and their ICU stays were shorter, compared with control patients.
Optimal immune function is vital in preventing cancers from developing, as the immune system constantly patrols the body for cells that appear abnormal.
We now have powerful evidence that a combination of prebiotics and probiotics works to boost immune-related cancer surveillance. A supplement including probiotics plus inulin enriched with fructooligo-saccharides enhanced blood cell immune functions in a group of patients with precancerous colonic polyps.13 In the same study, colon cancer patients taking the supplement had increased production of the natural anti-carcinogen interferon-gamma.
Other studies have revealed that prebiotic consumption enhanced levels of cancer-fighting immune cells, while reducing production of molecules that cancer cells use to protect themselves and invade tissue.14 These results are important for everyone, not only for those at risk for colon cancer, since the supplements affected anti-cancer immunity throughout the body.
Waning immunity in older people can also reduce the effectiveness of valuable vaccines such as those used against both seasonal and H1N1 (“swine”) flu. Laboratory studies have shown that prebiotic fructo-oligosaccharide supplementation can enhance vaccine efficacy, increasing production of protective cytokines and enhancing survival after exposure to disease.15 And protective antibodies secreted into the bowel as well as those in the blood are markedly increased in mice given prebiotics and probiotics in combination.16
Allergic diseases and eczema are also the result of an imbalanced immune response. Finnish allergists have been able to prevent eczema in infants at high risk for developing the disease simply by feeding their mothers a probiotic/prebiotic mixture during the final weeks of pregnancy, and continuing the supplements in the newborns.2 Remarkably, a similar study showed not only that the allergy-protective effect lasted beyond the end of treatment, but also that supplemented infants had fewer episodes of respiratory infections and asthma as well.17 These results are so powerful that they’ve led to calls by experts to include prebiotics and probiotics in infant formulas.18