THE LOWDOWN ON POLYPHENOLS AND YOUR MICROBIOME
4 MIN READ
Let’s start by acknowledging that the words polyphenol, microbiome, and prebiotic can feel pretty intimidating, so before we dive in, let’s remove any preconceived barriers and talk about what each of these super “sciencey” terms really mean.
What are polyphenols?
Polyphenols are micronutrients that naturally occur in plants, which include compounds like flavonoids; found in berries and dark chocolate, and phenolic acids; found in citrus fruits and tea – to name a few.
Some polyphenols you may recognize the names of since they’ve gained a bit of mainstream popularity, such as ECGC found in green tea and Resveratrol found in wine and plant extracts, like japanese knotweed.
What are the benefits of polyphenols?
There are over eight thousand different types of polyphenols that have been identified, many of which are potent antioxidants that help fight free radicals and repair oxidative damage to our cells – which means they can help prevent premature aging, photo-damage, and collagen degradation.
Certain polyphenols have been shown to promote healthy brain function, which supports cognition and memory. They are also known to promote the healthy growth of beneficial gut bacteria in the microbiome, supporting healthy digestion.
Finally, polyphenols can stimulate the growth of healthy microorganisms within the microbiome – which leads us to our next term…
The microbiome, what is it exactly?
The microbiome is the accumulation of all microbiota that live on or within your cells and tissues. The vast majority of microbiota lives in your gut – specifically in your large intestine – but a lesser known and equally important microbiome also exists on your skin.
Before we go further, let’s address this word, microbiota. Basically your microbiotais made up of bacteria (hello, probiotics) as well as fungi, and even parasites and viruses.
“Although they’re often used interchangeably, microbiota is the actual bugs and microbiome is the bugs AND their genes.”
You can also think of the microbiome as the home for the microbiota.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s dive back in. The microbiome is one of the most important parts of your body, and is even labeled as a supporting organ as it plays so many key roles in the functions of your overall health; from digesting food, to regulating your immune system, and even balancing your mood – your microbiota actually produces about 95% of your serotonin.
The human microbiome has an estimated 100 trillion microbiota – aka gut bugs. In a healthy person, these gut-bugs coexist peacefully, but external factors such a diet high in sugar, processed food, trans-fats, and deli meats (sorry meat-lovers), as well as lifestyle factors like high-stress and minimal exercise can disrupt that peace and wreak havoc on your microbiome.
The difference between prebiotics, probiotics and postbiotics
There is a lot of different talk about all of the “biotics”. Although the purpose of this article is to cover prebiotics, it’s important to talk about how each are related.
First up, probiotics. Probiotics are live bacteria consumed through your diet that promote a healthy gut, and add directly to your microbiome.
Probiotics can be found in greek yogurt and fermented foods such as kefir, as well as supplements.
A newer and lesser known term is postbiotics. These are the beneficial waste molecules produced by probiotic bacteria, and are important for improving the immune system, strengthening the intestinal barrier, and many of the benefits often directly attributed to probiotics.
Because yogurt, kefir, and fermented foods like kimchi are high in probiotics, consuming them will also result in the production of beneficial postbiotics – since they are excreted as “waste” by the live bacteria (probiotics) themselves. It is also possible to supplement directly with postbiotics.
So, if probiotics are the live bacteria and postbiotics are the metabolic “waste” excreted by that bacteria, then what are prebiotics?
Prebiotics are specialized plant fibers, and are where it all begins in a healthy microbiome. They act like fertilizers that stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut.
You can think of prebiotics as the “food” that feeds the live bacteria – aka the probiotics – which ensures that the all important metabolic byproducts, known as postbiotics, are produced.
In short, postbiotics are the results of probiotics consuming prebiotics.
Where do you find prebiotics?
As we’ve touched on in the last two parts, prebiotics can be found in abundance in polyphenols, which we now know are found in fruits, such as cherries, berries, and citrus fruits, as well as tea and grains.
In general, eating a diverse, balanced, whole food diet with a high fibre content will ensure you are getting adequate sources of prebiotics.
As we mentioned before, the microbiome, while mostly occurring in your gut, also exists in other parts of your body such as mammary glands and your skin.
Your skin is the largest organ in your body, and it also hosts its own ecosystem of good bacteria, which can just as easily be disrupted due to stress, poor diet, lack of exercise and bad sleep. Your skin microbiome can also be damaged by using harsh, non-plant-based products that damage your skin barrier and negatively affect your skin’s microbiota.
Make sure to look for microbiome friendly skincare products that contain 100% plant-based ingredients.
Just as your microbiome can affect your mood, energy, sleep, and cognition, it can also affect your skin. So ensuring you’re getting enough prebiotics in your diet, is a great way to maintain a healthy skin microbiome as well.
All in all, polyphenols are nutrients found in plants that can act as prebiotics to feed your microbiome the healthy bacteria it needs to thrive and keep all of you healthy and vital.
This is just beginning to scratch the surface of the topic of the microbiome and all the nutrients that feed it, but for now, you can take all this juicy knowledge to your next dinner party and chat about how the delicious polyphenol-rich wine you’re drinking may just be feeding your microbiome the prebiotics it deserves.