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Last Updated on May 14, 2021

Prebiotic vs Probiotic: What’s the Difference and Why Are They Important?

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Prebiotic vs Probiotic: What’s the Difference and Why Are They Important?

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. In this article, I’ll talk about the prebiotic vs probiotic discussion and why they are both important.

What Are Probiotics?

To understand the difference, consider the prefixes “pro-” and “pre-.” The term “pro-biotics” literally translates to “for life.” That’s because probiotics help promote good health!

The official definition of probiotics from the World Health Organization is:[1]

“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 break down the food that you eat and helping your body 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 yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, and various pickled products. For convenience, you can also take probiotics in pill form.

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What Are Prebiotics?

“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.[2]

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 by 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 are comprised mainly of fructans and galactans. Both of these are broken down (fermented) by the anaerobic bacteria in your large intestine.[3]

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.[4] 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.

How Do Probiotics and Prebiotics Improve Your Gut Health?

Both prebiotics and probiotics are known to provide several health benefits. Here’s how they help improve your gut health.

Benefits of Probiotics

Simply put, probiotics are the good bacteria living in your gut. They support your health in a variety of ways:

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  • Breaking down and digesting food
  • Supporting overall gut health
  • Maintaining the health of your immune system

Probiotics also play a role in how you think and feel. Gut bacteria influence 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.[5]

Probiotics support digestion, promote healthy bowel transit time, and help 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.[6]

Boosting the immune system is another major benefit of probiotics. A healthy gut microbiome helps 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.[7][8] 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 as 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.[9] Some of the most effective strains for mental health include Bifidobacterium longum, Bifidobacterium breve, Bifidobacterium infantis, Lactobacillus helveticus, and Lactobacillus rhamnosus.[10]

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.[11]

Here are 12 probiotic-rich foods that you might want to add to your diet:

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  • Yogurt
  • Kefir
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha
  • Kvass
  • Pickles
  • Olives
  • Apple Cider Vinegar
  • Natto
  • Miso
  • Sourdough Bread

Benefits of Prebiotics

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 the number of friendly bacteria such as Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria.[12]

Adding more prebiotic fiber to your diet has been found to provide a range of benefits. Because your microbiome can 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.[13]

Here are some prebiotic-rich foods that you might want to add to your diet:

  • Asparagus
  • Bananas
  • Chicory
  • Garlic
  • Dandelion greens
  • Jerusalem artichoke
  • Kiwifruit
  • Legumes (chickpeas, beans)
  • Leeks
  • Onions

Can You Take Prebiotics and Probiotics Together?

Yes! In fact, it’s highly recommended. Prebiotics help nourish and support the growth of your probiotic bacteria, allowing them to maintain a healthy balance in your digestive system. Think of prebiotics as a kind of fertilizer for the garden in your gut.

Taking prebiotics and probiotics doesn’t have to mean taking heaps of extra supplements every day. Prebiotics are naturally present in a wide range of plant foods, especially inulin. Inulin is the most common form of prebiotic fiber and is found in over 36,000 types of plants! Other common forms of prebiotics include oligosaccharides and resistant starch. The best prebiotic foods to add to your diet include garlic, onions, bananas, Jerusalem artichoke, apple skins, chicory root, beans, and legumes.

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Probiotics are also available in a wide range of foods. Natural sources of probiotics include fermented foods, such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and other pickled items.

If you prefer the convenience of supplements, you won’t have to look far. There are many prebiotic and probiotic supplements available these days in the form of tablets, capsules, liquids, powders, and even smoothie mixes. Just be sure to choose a supplement that contains multiple strains of probiotic bacteria with a high CFU count, along with some prebiotics to keep them happy during their passage to your gut.

Also, look for some form of time-release protection from your harsh stomach environment. Stomach acid is notorious for destroying probiotic capsules—look for time-release tablets instead. Technologies such as BIO-tract are 15 times more effective at delivering probiotic bacteria safely to the gut.[14]

Conclusion

You should now understand the prebiotic vs probiotic issue. Just remember that your body is full of bacteria: good and bad. The good kind includes 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 the 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!

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Featured photo credit: Brenda Godinez via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Lisa Richards

Nutritionist, Creator of The Candida Diet, Owner of TheCandidaDiet.com

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Published on September 17, 2021

How to Take Probiotics for the Best Health Benefits

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How to Take Probiotics for the Best Health Benefits

Probiotics are a popular topic among health enthusiasts and medical professionals, alike, and rightfully so! As individuals seek to improve their health by becoming advocates for themselves, probiotics are often a good choice to become part of their new health-focused regimen.

However, there are some ways that will allow you to maximize the health benefits that you can get from probiotics. Read on to learn more about how to take probiotics for the best health benefits.

What Are Probiotics?

Probiotics

are living bacteria that provide countless health benefits when ingested. These bacteria are naturally occurring in the gut but can—and should—be replenished through external means. The gut contains beneficial bacteria that make up the microbiota and plays a key role in maintaining health in both the body and mind. A healthy gut keeps the digestive process working smoothly, which prevents free radical and toxin build up in the body known to lead to many acute and chronic illnesses[1]

It is also thought that probiotics secrete substances that trigger the immune system to react more strongly, thereby preventing pathogens from being able to take root and cause illness.[2]

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Can You Take Too Many Probiotics?

Taking too many probiotics is not a common issue. For those who have taken too many probiotics (and each person will need to find their own tolerance level), they will likely experience gut disruptions and gastrointestinal side effects.

Probiotics are generally safe regardless of the amount taken, and any side effects are generally mild. It is impossible to take a toxic level of probiotics. The most common side effects of taking more probiotics than you can tolerate are gas, bloating, and diarrhea. These side effects can be treated individually and are generally corrected after 24 to 48 hours and stopping the probiotics until they are resolved.

It can be tempting to discontinue probiotic use altogether after a negative experience out of fear of another bad reaction, but simply reducing your dose and taking your probiotic as directed should prevent further issues. It is important for those with a weakened immune system or serious illness to discuss probiotic use with their healthcare provider before starting a probiotic regimen.

Can You Take Prebiotics and Probiotics Together?

As probiotics grow in use, prebiotics is beginning to get attention as well. Prebiotics come in supplement form but can also be fiber-rich foods that feed good gut bacteria. Probiotics replenish the good bacteria in the gut while prebiotics maintains the gut microbiome by feeding the good bacteria we have in the gut. Because of this relationship between prebiotics and probiotics, it is perfectly acceptable to take them together. However, if your diet already contains healthy, fiber-rich foods then you will likely not require prebiotic supplements.

Prebiotics contain fibers and natural sugars that encourage the growth of essential gut bacteria. They are easy to digest and keep the gut in balance. Prebiotic foods contain fiber and can include bananas, garlic, and dark leafy greens. Probiotic foods contain live cultures and include miso, some yogurts, kimchi, and sauerkraut.[3]

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You can learn more in my other article: Prebiotic vs Probiotic: What’s the Difference and Why Are They Important?

Can You Take Probiotics While Pregnant?

When carrying a child, a mother wants to create the safest environment possible. This is a time where the mother-to-be will begin integrating new and recommended health practices like exercise, supplements, and new diet habits. One question that is asked by pregnant women is whether or not probiotics are safe to take while pregnant. The benefits of probiotics are well documented, and many pregnant women want to know if probiotics will benefit them as well.

Pregnancy may be a good time to integrate a probiotic into your regimen simply due to the increased potential for an imbalance in gut bacteria that pregnancy naturally produces. Stress, medications, diarrhea, and vomiting as well as certain diet choices can cause bad bacteria to overrun the gut and lead to a dampened immune response, inflammation, fatigue, and more.

The simple answer is yes, probiotics are generally safe to take while pregnant. However, it is always recommended to discuss any introduction or discontinuation of supplements with your healthcare provider.

Many studies have shown that not only are probiotics safe to take while pregnant but also that they can add great benefits for mother and baby. A 2019 study by Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology found that the pregnant women’s gut microbiota improved through probiotic supplementation and that her immune system was enhanced.[4]

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During pregnancy, the pregnant mom’s immune system will go into a dampened state as the body works to protect and grow the fetus. This places her at greater risk for common illnesses she may have been able to fight off naturally before. Therefore, integrating a probiotic into her supplement regimen may help keep her and her baby safe from unwanted and avoidable illness.

One important factor to consider when taking a probiotic during pregnancy is the quality of the product you are purchasing. Not all probiotics are created equal. To maximize benefits while also avoiding unnecessary ingredients, it is crucial to choose a high quality and reputable probiotic.

When Is the Best Time to Take Probiotics?

As with many supplements and medications, there are certain times and factors that can change their efficacy, for good or bad. Research shows that the best time to take a probiotic is 30 minutes before a meal.[5] Consistency is key when it comes to taking a probiotic and experiencing as many of the potential health benefits as possible. This means that it is necessary to take it daily to ensure routine and regular replenishment of the gut’s bacteria.

The stomach is a highly acidic environment, which can make it difficult for many supplements to pass through in their most bioavailable form. The same is true for probiotics. Look for a high-quality probiotic that uses time-release tablets to deliver its bacteria safely to the gut.

The composition of your meal can also help or hinder your probiotic’s efficacy. A large meal will move more slowly through the stomach and trigger more stomach acid production. If your probiotic is taken along or prior to this type of meal, the probiotic will move more slowly and be exposed to a hostile environment for longer.

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The Bottom Line

When taking a probiotic, the most important thing to consider is product quality. Carefully read packaging and websites to ensure you are getting a product that is safe, pure, and effective. Look for a probiotic that will release its bacteria slowly and deliver them safely past your stomach acid.

Probiotics have been shown to support the immune system, prevent gastrointestinal issues, combat side effects from chronic conditions, and give extra support during pregnancy. These are just a few from a long list of scientifically backed benefits. Regardless of your motivation, just about every individual can benefit from adding a probiotic to their supplement and health regimen.

Lastly, here’s my recommendations on probiotics: 7 Best Probiotic Supplements (Recommendation and Reviews)

Featured photo credit: Christopher Campbell via unsplash.com

Reference

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