Digestive Health: Probiotic vs. Prebiotic



Bacteria are everywhere and that’s a good thing because they help us to stay alive.  In an ideal world we would have an abundance of bacteria covering our skin, inside our mouths, in our nasal tracts, our respiratory system, eyes, and throughout our entire GI tract.  We have evolved to live in a harmonious symbiotic dance with these microscopic creatures, as we keep them alive as much as they keep us alive. Let's talk about all these little specimens that keep us alive and thriving.  

Our microbiome is a whole world unto itself, which is essential for the health of our gut lining; our immune system, proper digestion, and neurological health and overall wellbeing.  The microbiome (meaning the world of bacteria and other organisms that live in your digestive system) are often known as the beneficial gut flora. This gut flora can weigh up to 2 kilos in weight, which just goes to show the enormity of this microbial community.  

Bacteria act as important guardians for our bodies, as they coat the entire digestive tract from where food enters to where food exits.  The GI tract tube is still essentially outside of your body, (despite running through it) as the outside world is still present here in the form of food, toxins, chemicals, or even foreign objects accidentally ingested etc etc.  It is the function of the GI tract to determine what should pass through the gut lining and what should be excreted as waste, as once particles cross the gut lining then they have technically entered your bodily system proper. If harmful particles pass into your system, then cellular damage can be done and problems or disease can manifest. Think of your GI tract as your guardian and best friend, it really deserves to be treated well, as damage to the GI tract can cause the defenses to go down and the gut lining barrier can be breached.

Lines of Defense

The bacteria and other organisms in the microbiome form a protective layer all along the GI tract, which help to act as a line of defense.  Not only does it coat the GI tract with protective bacteria that can neutralize invaders, this layer also helps to nourish and feed cells in your gut, keeping them healthy and alive.  The cells lining your gut shed and reproduce every 3 days, ensuring an optimum performing gut lining teaming with healthy, functioning cells. This means that they need a healthy food supply in order to regenerate rapidly, and the gut bacteria help to provide this.

According to Dr Natasha Campbell McBride who developed the GAPS protocol (gut & psychology syndrome), gut bacteria help to protect the GI tract lining in 3 distinct ways:

  1. They kill unwanted bacteria by producing anti-viral, anti-fungal and antibiotic like substances

  2. They make the pH close to the gut wall very acidic which makes it a very hostile environment for non-beneficial bacteria and other pathogens.  

  3. They absorb and neutralize carcinogenic substances, meaning they are essential for preventing cancer.  

Opportunistic Flora

The gut lining is not only home to a huge amount of beneficial gut bacteria but it is also home to what is known as opportunistic flora which can cause sickness or other health issues if there numbers grow too large.  It is normal to have the non beneficial flora living in your gut but the key is to have an abundance of the good stuff in order to keep the not so nice stuff in check.

So if your beneficial bacteria become depleted, for whatever reason, then this provides a window of opportunity for your opportunistic gut flora to flourish and essentially run amok.  This can lead to IBS symptoms, yeast overgrowth, constipation or diarrhea, skin conditions, and even emotional or psychological imbalances (this is because your gut and brain are directly connected by the vagus nerve, and whatever is going on in your gut can impact on your brain).

A lack of healthy flora can basically lead to inflammation of the digestive system, which can then lead onto system wide inflammation.

Different Types of Beneficial Bacteria

1. Probiotics - these are pro life bacteria that help to populate your gut lining and GI tract in general with some of the most well recognized and researched bacteria out there.  A probiotic is usually a supplement containing freeze dried bacteria, which can be taken daily. There are lots of different types of probiotics on the market aimed at targeting different issues, so it’s often worth talking to a professional who can guide you to buying the best one for you.  Most health food shops have someone who can guide you on this also.

  • As the gut contains a huge variety of species of bacteria it’s important to get a probiotic that has a decent variation of types, and in quantities that can have an impact.

  • A good broad spectrum probiotic should contain bacteria from the Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria species as well as soil based bacteria. Soil based bacteria act like the bacteria we would ingest if eating food found in an organic environment in nature e.g. picked straight from the ground. As very few people have direct contact with food plucked straight from nature these days, most people are lacking the microorganisms that we would ingest in these circumstances, which are also extremely beneficial to our microbial flora.

  • A decent daily probiotic dose should contain about 8

  • 15-20 billion CFU (colony forming units) or more bacteria and ideally come in a capsule that can withstand stomach acid, only dissolving once in the intestines.

2. Prebiotics - these are components in edible foods that we can’t fully digest but your gut bacteria can.  Your gut flora needs to eat also and certain indigestible prebiotics are able to act as a food source for them. Prebiotics can be just as essential as probiotics as there is no point taking loads of probiotic supplements to populate your gut with bacteria, if the bacteria then suffer from lack of appropriate nourishment.  Easy to access foods containing prebiotics are plantains (which are high in resistant starch), dandelion leaves, onions and raw garlic. If you eat a variety of seasonal fruit and vegetables, you most likely are getting some good prebiotics.

  • Resistant Starch is a great prebiotic that especially targets the colon. It’s such a great food for the gut that we wrote a whole article dedicated to its benefits here.


So What Can We Do?

A general gut health diet to start with is ideal, one that is anti inflammatory and helps to feed digestive tract.  The food we serve at our Tulum restaurant, for us, is a prime example of a gut friendly diet, as we specifically chose foods such as bone broth, liver pate, coconut oil, plantain, fermented coconut yogurt and all the veggies, as they are known to help nourish and soothe the GI tract.  The menu is free from gut irritating foods such as grains, gluten, dairy and refined sugars in order to provide a place where people can eat well and feel well. However, on top of eating a gut nourishing diet we would also recommend the following options. 

1. Start introducing, or increase, your intake of fermented foods.  Fermented foods have been an integral part of most traditional people’s diets for centuries.  Fermented foods perhaps started out as a way for people to preserve and store food, allowing them a food source during less abundant months, or whilst travelling.  However, they turned out to play a enormously important role in gut health as they help to populate the digestive tract with ample sources of beneficial flora.  

2. Make your own fermented foods such as sauerkraut, pickles, fermented salsas, kimchi, coconut milk yogurt.  

3. Drink fermented drinks.  All sodas and fizzy drinks started off as being naturally fermented beverages, back in the day before industrial food production took off.  The fizziness was naturally produced carbon dioxide which came from having fermented the lemonade or gingerade over a period of days or weeks.  This helped to reduce the sugar content in the drink whilst also lacing it with beneficial bacteria.  Experiment with making your own homemade, naturally fermented lemonades or gingerades.

4. Alternatively experiment with kombucha which is a delicious fermented tea which is very easy to make.

5. Take specific supplements such as a pre and probiotic.

6. Eat prebiotic foods such as plantains, dandelion leaves, onions and raw garlic.  

7. Reduce your sugar intake as sugar is known to help feed opportunistic gut flora and yeasts.

Resistant Starch

Resistant Starch

Resistant starch is something that we have become interested in over the years due to its positive effects on gut health. A healthy digestive tract requires a healthy microbiome, which are the life sustaining bacteria and organisms that live inside your gut. This bacteria helps with your body function properly. It benefits your digestion; immunity; production of neurotransmitters (feel-good hormones); vitamin synthesis; energy synthesis and much much more.  We rely completely on healthy gut bacteria for our well-being, and if our diet worsen, our microbiome suffers and ill health runs rampant. You have probably heard about probiotics, but prebiotics are just as important. Prebiotics feed the bacteria (probiotic organisms), and that’s where resistant starch gets interesting.

Resistant starch plays an essential role in supporting our colonic health by acting as a prebiotic for some seriously important bacteria. We have touched upon this in other articles but we feel it needs a little extra attention in order to really discuss its merits and worth.  

Resistant starch is a type of complex sugar molecule that in essence, resists digestion.  It passes through the small intestine undigested until it reaches the large intestine where it gets greeted by hungry, perhaps even starving, gut bacteria. These bacteria are able to use it for food, which then causes a chain reaction fermentation process involving different types of bacteria that feed and eliminate different molecules.  One of the end products, which is actually a waste product from one type of bacteria, is something called butyrate acid (a short chain fatty acid). However, butyrate acid is not actually a waste product as it gets used often by your body.

Butyrate acid molecules can absorb straight into the lining of the large intestine, and this helps improve and maintain a strong blood flow into the intestines.  The cells can live entirely on butyrate acid as an energy source. If there is enough acid being produced by the bacteria of the large intestine, then this will ensure a healthy intestinal lining.  

The intestinal lining is extremely efficient at regenerating itself, and sheds its cells every 3 days in order to ensure that all the gut cells are the most healthy they can be. This is because they do such an important job and your body takes no chances by having tired old cells coating the gut, that aren’t up to the serious task of digestion.  

The constant synthesis of new cells and regeneration of the gut lining requires energy and nutrients to do this effectively. Your gut cells need as much available energy and nutrition as possible in order to keep regenerating. Many gut issues can be caused by the cells not being able to regenerate fast enough which causes the cell renewal process to slow down and cellular death or mutation can take place.  

The bacteria in your gut forms a thick band along the gut wall, which protects it from unwanted invaders and also feeds the gut cells, keeping them nourished.  If the gut bacteria is starved, they will become depleted and then your intestinal cells will become exposed to pathogens, viruses, and any harmful bacteria. A colony of healthy bacteria that have an abundant supply of food for them to feed on are essential for the survival of your intestinal wall.  

4 Types of Resistant Starch:

RS1 - starch that is found in plant cell walls that can’t be broken down by digestion e.g. grains, pulses, legumes and seeds.

RS2 - starch that can’t be digested in its raw state due to its molecular structure and needs to be cooked in order for it to become digestible. These foods are best eaten cooked to get the most benefit e.g. potatoes, green bananas, raw plantain, cassava root.  

RS3 - this is a form of resistant starch that forms once a starchy food has been cooked and then cooled down and is also known as retrograded starch e.g. cooked potatoes, grains, rice and beans.

RS4 - a man made resistant starch, that isn’t found in nature.  


Other Health Benefits:

Resistant starch has also been linked to other health benefits such as reduced blood sugar levels after eating it, due to improved insulin sensitivity (so better able to balance blood sugar).  It also seems to keep blood sugar levels balanced during fasting periods, or periods in between eating, which helps to keep your energy levels stable and inhibit constant snacking.

Normal starch or carbohydrates is digested in the small intestine and then turned into energy. They are often digested very quickly and can result in a spike in blood sugar levels. Resistant starch can offer you a carbohydrate option, which keeps your blood sugar levels balanced, satiated, and helps to keep your large intestine and colon healthy.  

Luckily you can find resistant starch in lots of our food as we use plantain flour at the restaurant in our house bread, macho pancakes and plantain cookies.  The resistant starch from the plantain flour in the cookies may also help to balance out any effects of the coconut sugar as even though we like to use coconut sugar as a better choice of sugar, it is still a sugar, and may have some impact on your blood sugar levels, albeit less than a refined sugar would.  The resistant starch in the cookies help balance your blood sugar levels and you feel fuller longer.

Introducing foods high in resistant starch can cause some bloating, perhaps due to the fermentation process being kicked off in your large intestine by the bacteria suddenly having access to a food source.  This could happen when introducing any type of resistant starch but we like to feed it to ourselves in a whole food form with whole plantains, plantain flour, yucca and malanga (a Mexican tuber). We believe it is important to get resistant starch in this whole food form as opposed to an isolated form, such as potato starch.  

This is because our digestive tracts have evolved to deal with whole foods and in the case of resistant starch, the benefits are most experienced when combined with fiber from different foods. This helps the starch to move further along the large intestine where it can feed more bacteria and cover a larger surface area for producing butyrate acid.  You can introduce these foods slowly into your diet and see how your body reacts, and if you are fine you can keep increasing but it is generally recommended to have around 15-30g a day for a substantial effect.

Whole foods contain many healing properties, which is why it's best to receive nutrition from a whole food as opposed to a supplement or an isolated part of a food. You can find plenty of sources of resistant starch on our menus in the form of the macho pancakes; plantain bread; plantain cookies; yucca fries; malanga fries; hemp bolitos.  


Why Grain Free?

Why Grain Free?

It was a bit of a surprise to some that we made the restaurant menu grain free (alongside gluten, dairy and refined sugar free), but to many it turned out to be a godsend.  It could have proven controversial as we had also adopted a plant based eating foundation (to which you can add ethically sourced animal products), so when you remove grains and pulses, where do plant based eaters get there grounding and more carb based foods from.  But it was an important point for us and something we strongly believed in and a challenge we were willing to meet.  Thankfully, it’s proven worthwhile, according to a lot of our guests at least.

Is Healthy Always Wholesome?

Is Healthy Always Wholesome?

There is no denying that wellness is a serious business right now. There seems to have been a mass movement in the collective consciousness towards delving deeper into health and wellbeing. Old beliefs and paradigms are shifting and it looks like people are wanting more. More health, more balance, more joy, more meaning, more life…



“I began experimenting with plantain flour at The Real Coconut in Tulum when developing a pancake recipe for the restaurant's breakfast menu, which then led to loads of other baked goodies, including cookies. The cookies have been so beloved by guests, and plantain flour is incredible from both a nutritional and environmental standpoint, that I had to find a way to bring them to the U.S.,” offers Daniella Hunter of The Real Coconut. 

Grass Fed vs Grain Fed

Grass Fed vs Grain Fed

Due to increasingly unrealistic and unsustainable demands for cheap meat and dairy, something had to give. In order to supply a portion of the market with cheap meat, certain agricultural institutions started to modify the feeding and rearing practices of animals to make them more effective meat and dairy producers. Some animals are now fed on a processed feed which is high in grain, especially corn and soya, as it means that the cows can be fattened up quickly and cheaply. Grain breaks down into glucose which causes the animal to quickly gain weight. For dairy cows it also means that they have sufficient nutrients to keep producing milk throughout the Winter months when grass is lacking.

Why We Love Coconut Oil!

Why We Love Coconut Oil!

Coconut oil was an essential part of the discussion while we were dreaming up the concept and menu in the initial stages of The Real Coconut.  Back in the days where the plan was a simple one: a cosy beach front cafe where you could get healthy, tasty nibbles for all the family.  Little did we know it would become so much more and we see now how coconut oil was such a vital part of its success.

Body Talk: Happy Bowels!

Body Talk: Happy Bowels!

We need to talk about constipation because blocked bowels generally mean something’s not right. It’s very important that the bowels stay moving and fluid in order to maintain total body-health as the gut is where all your nutrition comes in and waste material leaves, so this needs to be a quick and efficient process. The good news is that there is a lot that you can do to bring movement and fluidity back into your body.

What is Digestive Health?

What is Digestive Health?

You could talk about what constitutes good digestive health for hours due to the complexity of all the different components that contribute to the vast machine that is the GI tract.  However, to keep things simple and short, I will summarise that good digestive health basically means that you and your gut feel good at all times (or most of the time), especially, during and after eating.