Prebiotics, human milk oligosaccharides, and how they relate to your gut microbiome

Jun 10, 2024

When it comes to cultivating a lush and thriving gut microbiome, recent trends are spotlighting the pivotal role of prebiotics, rather than just the addition of more probiotics. Imagine eagerly stockpiling your garden with a variety of plants to create a verdant greenhouse, yet, paradoxically, neglecting to water them. This analogy underscores the current predicament in gut health: the excessive focus on the types of bacteria populating our guts without sufficient attention to the environment they reside in.

 It’s as if we’re loading up on flora for our internal ecosystem, introducing new bacterial species with gusto, but we forget a critical element – sustenance. Without providing the right nutrients, this well-intentioned bacterial influx might be akin to just dropping seeds into barren soil and hoping for the best. They need something to facilitate their growth, to turn the 'soil' of our gut into a hospitable, nourishing environment. 

Prebiotics serve as this vital nourishment. They're not merely an add-on; they could very well be described as superpowered garden nutrients for our gut's microscopic inhabitants. Among the plethora of prebiotics available, some have gained popularity due to their potent effects, such as inulin, fructooligosaccharides (FOS), and galactooligosaccharides (GOS). Yet, there’s one class that stands out: human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs). This is the 'secret ingredient' found in mother’s milk that confers infants with robust microbiomes. And it’s also the ‘secret ingredient’ found in our bellie prebiotic herbal tea.

So, what happens when these oligosaccharides enter the picture? They become the preferred meal for a type of bacteria known as Bifidobacteria. And it's not just any meal; it's the five-star dining experience that allows them to flourish. The Bifidobacteria, in turn, play an essential role in our health by enhancing gut barrier function, producing essential nutrients, and even improving immune response. (one more sentence—what is Bifidobacteria) It's a microscopic case of "you are what you eat" – feed your gut bacteria well, and they'll return the favor tenfold.

 Breastfeeding children tend to have more diverse and stable gut microbiomes, which has been linked to better health outcomes. This is, in part, due to the HMOs – these powerful prebiotics are the unsung heroes of early development. But recent research is showcasing the impact HMOs might have on adults with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), too.

 If you’re still skeptical about the power of prebiotics, consider the research. Studies are increasingly showing that the benefits of prebiotics extend far beyond the gut. They've been linked to improved bone density, protection against colorectal cancer, better-controlled blood sugar, and even weight management. Their effects are systemic, influencing aspects of health that might seem unrelated at first glance. Not to mention all the nonmicrobial benefits of fiber, including regularity and digestion.

 It’s clear that our approach to gut health requires a shift – from merely introducing more bacteria to fostering an environment that nurtures the beneficial ones we already have. This is not to discount the value of probiotics; they’re important, but they’re just part of the story. Prebiotics are the context, the background that allows the probiotic 'characters' to live out their roles effectively.

Incorporating prebiotics into your diet isn’t just an emerging trend among the growing population of GI health conscious consumers; it’s a sound approach to long-term health. Foods rich in prebiotic fibers like garlic, onions, bananas, and whole grains can be easily included in meals.  Yet, we mustn't get carried away and start overloading on prebiotics without a thought. Like anything, balance is key. Excessive amounts of prebiotics could lead to discomfort and bloating, as they're fermented in the gut. It's about creating a harmonious environment, not an overwhelming one. Indeed, the amount of fiber and prebiotics contained in most food can often be ambiguous: most nutrition labels—especially those on most beverage cans—don’t tell you what you get. At bellie, we have done this work for you, by mixing in the optimal dose of one of the most important prebiotics—HMO’s. That is why our nutrition labels are transparent: each of our ingredients is front and center, so nothing will interfere with the magical power of HMOs.

To conclude, prebiotics are not just a buzzword in the wellness industry; they're a fundamental component of gut health. It's time we give them the recognition they deserve and incorporate them thoughtfully into our diets. So the next time you’re considering how to bolster your gut microbiome, remember: don’t just plant the garden, nourish it. The payoff won’t just be a flourishing internal ecosystem, but a ripple effect of health benefits that could transform your overall well-being.


Jillian Kubala: “You’ve Heard of Probiotics — But What Are Prebiotics? All You Need to Know,” Healthline, 2022.

Davani-Davari, et al. “Prebiotics: Definition, Types, Sources, Mechanisms, and Clinical Applications,” MDPI, 2019.

NIH: NCCIH, “Probiotics, What You Need to Know.