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By accident, I heard an ad on the television (which we usually try to mute) for prebiotics in Aveeno brand moisturizer.

The brand is an old, familiar name, which like so many old favorites used to be one thing you could rely on. Being relatively conversant with the concept of probiotics and only marginally with prebiotics, I did what we always told our kids when they asked questions: look it up.

Aveeno was created to make a preparation from oats to soothe itching, dry skin, but wouldn’t plug up your bathtub drain. In days of yore folks would get a bag of oats in a cheesecloth and run it under water while filling a tub to soak in. It did help. The brand product also had some benefits. The new spin about the oats is they are a prebiotic that “nourishes your skin microbiome (MIKE-ro-BUY-ome) to normalize skin disease,” specifically the breed of eczema called atopic.

The concept of microbiome originated with gut bacteria. There is an amazingly readable book by Ed Yong called “I Contain Multitudes, the Microbes in Us and A Grander View of Life,” highly recommended for the scope of what we and all the other critters, even parasites, etc., really are.

Not for bedtime reading. It turns out we are nothing but a bag of bugs. Of the trillions (3-6 pounds) of bacteria in human gut there are almost 1,000 species known. (I hear ’em talking at night. They keep me awake.)

The ideas and studies of gut microbiome bugs influencing our health for good or bad are still in its infancy. Some real connections have been made to bowel diseases, and other illnesses such as depression. The constant flux of which bacterium is more plentiful between the “good” ones or bad ones which cause disease is where prebiotics come in.

Probiotics were developed as sort of dehydrated bacteria species to be taken orally to make the swirly slide through your digestive system to large bowel and repopulate it with beneficial bugs, like yogurt is supposed to do.

It developed from whole stool or fecal transplants first done, I believe, in 1958 for intractable diarrhea. Fecal microbiota transplant is still a standard practice for this.

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Prebiotics are various foods, which can stimulate the growth and balance of healthful bacteria in your colon. Prebiotic dietary fibers from plants are nondigestible. So they make it all the way to the colon where desirable bacteria like bifidobacterium and lactobacillus types metabolize and ferment those fibers into short chain fatty acids, which provide energy for cells lining your gut wall. It’s felt this helps protect against colon cancer and other maladies. That’s actually only part of the story, but enough for now.

The concept of prebiotics was introduced in a 1995 paper, which described them as a “non-digestible food ingredient that beneficially affects the host by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of one or a number of limited bacteria in the colon, and thus improves host health.” The precise definition of what fits into that category is yet in evolution.

The foods thought to contain the “good stuff” include leeks, asparagus, banana, garlic (yay!), onions, oats, whole-wheat foods, soybeans, chicory root, Jerusalem artichokes, green vegetables, legumes, tomatoes and a few others.

Prebiotics have been added to some things like yogurt, bread, cereals, etc. (I vote to add them to chocolate.) The Aveeno claim is the first and only one I know of so far for a topical application.

The ideas of dietary fiber being healthful to goes back to 430 B.C. with Hippocrates advocating it to help bowel function and general well being. All through the 1900s, a variety of promotions told of the superlative goodness of their fibrous foods.

Prebiotics may not be for everyone because the rapid fermentation can cause gas, bloating, diarrhea or even constipation in sensitive patients. They can actually worsen symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. They’re not recommended if you have small bowel intestinal overgrowth syndrome.

So, perhaps the Aveeno claim has some basis. The company has done some research published about atopic eczema skin improving substantially with its product.

Believe it or not, this is a brief summary of the subject of the pros and cons of prebiotics. Which reminds me of Mark Twain’s famous comparison of pro vs. con: If pro is the opposite of con, what is the opposite or progress?

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