Oligosaccharides: The Prebiotics that Support the Heart & Gut

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Oligosaccharides - Dr. Axe

Although most people have heard of monosaccharides and polysaccharides, very few are familiar with oligosaccharides. These beneficial compounds are found in many of the foods that we eat every day and have been linked to some serious benefits, such as improved heart health, increased weight loss and better blood sugar control.

This article will cover everything you need to know about this common carbohydrate, including some of the top benefits, risks and food sources.

What Are Oligosaccharides?

Like monosaccharides and polysaccharides, oligosaccharides are a type of carbohydrate. The oligosaccharides structure is composed of around three to 10 monosaccharides, or simple sugars, that are linked together to form a chain.

The physical and chemical properties of oligosaccharides are very similar. Both have a sweet taste, can typically be dissolved in water and are present in a variety of food sources.

Oligofructose, for example, is one of the most common types on the list of oligosaccharides and can be found in vegetables like tomatoes, asparagus and onion nutrition.

There are also several similarities with many types of polysaccharide carbohydrates as well. In fact, most types of fiber in the diet are considered oligosaccharides and polysaccharides.

However, the main difference between oligosaccharides vs. polysaccharides is that polysaccharides are typically much longer and can even contain hundreds of monosaccharides

Oligosaccharides are also classified as a type of prebiotic, which is a compound that is not digested by the body but used as fuel and metabolized by the beneficial bacteria in the gut. Because most oligosaccharides are indigestible and act as prebiotics, they have been linked to a long list of health benefits, ranging from enhanced immune function to improved digestive health and beyond.

Types/Varieties

There are several different types of oligosaccharides that are commonly found in the diet. Typically, the oligosaccharides classification differs based on the specific molecules that it contains as well as the length and structure of the chain.

Some common types include:

  • Fructo-oligosaccharides/oligofructose
  • Galacto-oligosaccharides
  • Gluco-oligosaccharides
  • Lactosucrose
  • Maltotriose
  • Human milk oligosaccharides

Benefits/Uses

1. Improve Immunity

Oligosaccharides act as prebiotics, which can stimulate the immune system and help improve the body’s ability to defend against illness and infection. In particular, they work by increasing the expression of cytokines, which are a type of protein that regulate immune function.

They also act as fuel for the beneficial bacteria in the gut, which play a central role in immunity and inflammation.

2. Lower Cholesterol and Triglycerides

Some research suggests that oligosaccharides can effectively reduce triglyceride levels to help improve heart health. For instance, one meta-analysis published in Advanced Pharmaceutical Bulletin noted that supplementing with prebiotics significantly improved levels of triglycerides, total cholesterol and “good” HDL cholesterol compared to a control group.

What’s more, another review out of England reported that oligosaccharides could potentially reduce triglyceride levels by up to 27 percent.

3. Enhance Digestive Health

Adding oligosaccharides to your diet is a great way to improve gut health. In fact, one of the top prebiotics benefits is its ability to foster the growth of probiotics, which are a form of beneficial bacteria found in the digestive tract.

The fermentation of oligosaccharides by the gut microbiota leads to the production of short-chain fatty acids, which can help improve the strength of the intestinal barrier to reduce inflammation and protect against leaky gut. Leaky gut is a condition that is characterized by increased intestinal permeability, which can cause food particles and toxins to cross from the digestive tract into the bloodstream, causing symptoms like brain fog, nutritional deficiencies and joint pain.

4. Stabilize Blood Sugar Levels

High blood sugar levels can take a serious toll on many aspects of health and can cause side effects like fatigue, frequent urination and increased thirst. According to a 2012 review conducted by the Federal University of Amazon in Brazil, fructo-oligosaccharides can benefit glucose metabolism by decreasing blood sugar levels and slowing down digestion.

Other research in animals suggests that oligosaccharides can also increase insulin sensitivity, which can improve your body’s ability to transport sugar from the bloodstream to the cells where it can be used as fuel.

5. Boost Weight Loss

If you’re looking to lose weight, you may want to consider adding a few servings of prebiotics to your daily diet. One review out of Milan found that supplementing with synbiotics — which are a mix of prebiotics and probiotics — could be beneficial for weight management, according to both human studies and animal models.

Oligosaccharides also help stimulate the growth of probiotics, which have been tied to increased weight loss and decreased belly fat.

Food Sources

Found in a variety of different fruits and vegetables, there are lots of nutritious oligosaccharides foods that you can easily add to your diet.

Here are a few of the top oligosaccharide food sources:

  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Leeks
  • Asparagus
  • Tomatoes
  • Jicama
  • Dandelion root
  • Bananas
  • Yacon
  • Wheat
  • Chicory
  • Jerusalem artichoke
  • Burdock root

Risks and Side Effects

Foods high in oligosaccharides are also typically high-fiber foods. While fiber is absolutely essential to overall health, it can also cause several unpleasant side effects if consumed in high amounts, including gas, bloating and stomach pain.

To prevent negative symptoms, be sure to increase fiber intake slowly and pair with plenty of water to stay hydrated and keep things moving through the digestive tract.

Additionally, while consuming a variety of oligosaccharide foods is generally considered safe for most healthy adults, you may want to consider consulting with your doctor before using prebiotic supplements, especially if you have any underlying health conditions or are taking any medications.

Those following a low FODMAP diet should also limit their consumption of oligosaccharides, as they can cause digestive symptoms in those who are sensitive.

Conclusion

  • Oligosaccharides are a type of carbohydrate composed of several monosaccharides, or simple sugars, linked together in a chain.
  • These carbohydrates act as a prebiotic in the body and are fermented by the beneficial bacteria in the gut to promote the health of the gut microbiome.
  • Some of the most common types include oligofructose, galacto-oligosaccharides, maltotriose and lactosucrose.
  • Potential oligosaccharides benefits include improved immunity, decreased cholesterol and triglyceride levels, enhanced digestive health, better blood sugar control, and increased weight loss.
  • They can be found in a variety of food sources, including onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus and tomatoes, along with many other nutritious ingredients.