Many people find the prebiotic vs probiotic argument very confusing. They sound like they should be the same thing – but they’re not!
Each has a very different but very important function in the gut, and both should be consumed daily to maintain good digestive health.
To understand the difference, consider the prefix: PRO and PRE. The term “pro-biotics” literally translates as ‘for life’. That’s because probiotics help to promote good health!
The official definition of probiotics from the World Health Organization is:
“live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host”.
This simply means that probiotic bacteria live in your gut, helping to break down food that you eat and helping your body to absorb nutrients and enzymes. Unsurprisingly, this supports overall health.
Things that disrupt your levels of good bacteria include age, genetics, certain medications, alcohol and diet. Dysbiosis results when pathogens and yeast overwhelm the good bacteria and spread throughout your intestinal tract. This has been linked to intestinal diseases such as ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, and Crohn’s disease.
It’s easy to source probiotics from food or supplements. Probiotics are naturally present in foods such as yoghurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso and various pickled products. For convenience, you can also take probiotics in pill form.
Prebiotics, on the other hand, means “before life” – because they are the food for your good bacteria!
Prebiotics are a type of fiber that humans can’t digest. They actually belong to a group of dietary fiber called oligosaccharides. This group of compounds is in many foods and includes a variety of different non-digestible forms such as fructo-oligosaccharides, inulin and polysaccharides.
What this means is that prebiotics pass through your small intestine undigested and end up in the large colon, where they are fermented. This fermentation process is carried out the bacteria in your colon, which is why this prebiotic fiber is considered to be ‘food’ for these bacteria.
Essentially, prebiotics give your healthy bacteria the nourishment they need to thrive. This fermentation process is an excellent way to support the microbiome that exists in your digestive system.
In fact, it’s only in recent years that prebiotics were classified as ‘fiber’ – mainly because they behave in a similar way to other types of fiber. Researchers have found that prebiotic carbohydrates comprise mainly of fructans and galactans. Both of these are broken down (fermented) by the anaerobic bacteria in your large intestine.
Prebiotic fiber is easy to include in your diet. It’s available in many everyday foods such as garlic, onions, bananas, Jerusalem artichoke, the skin of apples (also known as pectin), chicory root, beans, psyllium husk and legumes.
Eating these prebiotic-rich foods as often as possible is a great way to keep your intestinal tract healthy. Think of them as a kind of natural fertilizer for your good gut bacteria.
Simply put, probiotics are the ‘good’ bacteria living in your gut. They support your health in a variety of ways:
Probiotics also play a role in how you think and feel. Gut bacteria have an influence on the production and regulation of hormones, such as insulin and leptin. They’ve also been found to produce neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, which are responsible for your mood.
Probiotics support digestion, promote healthy bowel transit time, and help to reduce diarrhea. They can also help improve symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease (an autoimmune disease), urinary tract infections, and other chronic health conditions.
Boosting the immune system is another major benefit of probiotics. A healthy gut microbiome helps to protect you from bad bacteria, particularly Candida yeast, fungi, and viruses. Research has found that the strains Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus acidophilus protected against infection with E. coli.
Other research has shown that women taking Lactobacillus have a lower risk of urinary tract infections (UTIs).
As for boosting mental health, it’s been found that gut bacteria is directly connected to your brain. This is why the gut is sometimes referred to the ‘second brain’ and probiotics are now being used to improve mental health disorders.
Certain strains of Probiotics are shown to help reduce anxiety, depression, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), obsessive-compulsive disorder, and even memory issues. Some of the most effective strains for mental health include Bifidobacterium longum, Bifidobacterium breve, Bifidobacterium infantis, Lactobacillus helveticus, and Lactobacillus rhamnosus.
Probiotics can also reduce the severity and duration of infectious diarrhea, and diarrhea associated with antibiotic use. Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus casei, and the yeast Saccharomyces boulardii were found to be most effective.
Here are 12 probiotic-rich foods that you might want to add to your diet:
Although taking probiotic supplements and eating fermented foods is very important for your gut health, prebiotics are just as valuable.
Prebiotics can boost the health benefits of probiotics by allowing them to flourish. Combining prebiotics with your probiotic intake can help to improve your gut health in many ways.
As prebiotics move through your gastrointestinal tract, they aren’t broken down by your gastric acids or digestive enzymes like other foods. They instead become sources of fuel and nutrients for the beneficial bacteria living in your gut.
Research shows that prebiotics play an important part in maintaining the overall balance and diversity of your intestinal bacteria. In particular, they help to increase numbers of ‘friendly’ bacteria such as Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria.
Adding more prebiotic fiber to your diet has been found to provide a range of benefits. Because your microbiome is able to use the prebiotic fibers to survive and produce short-chain fatty acids, your body can then use some of these fatty acids to repair improve the lining of the gut. This can reduce the risk of leaky gut syndrome, Candida overgrowth, IBS and other gut problems.
Here are some prebiotic-rich foods that you might want to add to your diet:
You should now understand the prebiotic vs. probiotic issue.
Just remember that your body is full of bacteria: good and bad. The good kind include probiotics, while the harmful kind can include pathogens and various yeasts. Good health comes from keeping the two in balance: that is, more good than bad.
This is best done by including plenty of live probiotics in your diet – either through food or supplements – and by feeding those probiotics with the nutrients they need to survive: prebiotics.
Together, prebiotics and probiotics can help to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and improve cholesterol levels. Your digestion will be enhanced due to the efficiency of bacteria in breaking down food you eat, which in turn can reduce symptoms such as bloating and gas.
You’ll also be obtaining more nutrients from your diet, which can go a long way in supporting energy levels and vitality.
The health of your gut is closely linked to many other bodily functions. By consuming both prebiotics and probiotics together, you can maintain optimal health – inside and out!