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Last Updated on May 14, 2021

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

Prebiotic vs Probiotic: What’s the Difference and Why Are They Important?
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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 July 16, 2021

What Are Probiotics And How To Use Them For the Best Health Benefits

What Are Probiotics And How To Use Them For the Best Health Benefits
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“Probiotics” is a word that most of us are probably familiar with. It’s something that people often recommended to others who are looking to improve their health, especially in terms of their diet. Although probiotics are well-known to bring several health benefits, it’s still important for us to know more about them if we want to incorporate them in our road to a healthier body.

Read on to learn more about what probiotics are and how you can maximize their health benefits.

What Are Probiotics?

Probiotics are “friendly” gut bacteria that are essential for normal, healthy functioning. Research shows that they have an important role in maintaining the health of the gut, the immune system, nervous system, and overall wellbeing.[1]

The word “probiotics” is derived from the Latin pro (for) and Greek bios (life). These live microorganisms can be bacterial, viral, or yeast, and can generally only be seen under a microscope.

You can learn more about probiotics here: Prebiotic vs Probiotic: What’s the Difference and Why Are They Important?

How Can Probiotics Help?

Probiotics have been shown to have a wide range of benefits for our health.

1. Probiotics Help With Digestion

Probiotics use a special process called fermentation to break down the food you eat. When food passes through the small intestine and into the colon, probiotics work with digestive enzymes to break down the food matter and absorb its nutrients. Without this help, digestion can be slowed or impaired, causing food to pass through your body without the benefits you need.

2. Probiotics Help Reduce Gastrointestinal Issues

Probiotics can help to reduce the risk of gas, bloating, and diarrhea, especially when traveling or taking antibiotics. Several studies suggest that probiotics are associated with a reduced risk of antibiotic-associated diarrhea. One study showing that taking probiotics reduced the incidence of diarrhea by up to 42%.[2][3]

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Taking probiotics can also prevent or treat infectious diarrhea not caused by antibiotics. A major review involving 35 different studies shows that certain strains of probiotics helped to reduce the duration of infectious diarrhea with a day.[4] This makes probiotics a good choice for those traveling or working in environments where bacteria are present, such as schools or hospitals.

3. Probiotics Provide Valuable Nutrients

Fermentation in the large intestine produces valuable enzymes and nutrients that your body needs for healthy functioning.[5] These enzymes help to break down protein and fat, while the nutrients include B vitamins, vitamin K, and short-chain fatty acids. All of these byproducts can help with energy production, tissue repair and maintenance, cognitive function, and hundreds of other processes. Probiotics support the fermentation process, promoting the breakdown of nutrients and proper digestion.

4. Probiotics Support Immune Function

More than 70 percent of your immune system is in your gut. The cells lining your gut interact with both your innate and adaptive immune systems, which means your gut is the first line of defense between your internal body systems and external pathogens. Any harmful microbes that enter your body from food, the air, or surfaces you are exposed to must first get through several defense systems before reaching the bloodstream.[6]

Your gut bacteria are constantly secreting huge quantities of antibodies into the gut. This helps your body manage any harmful bacteria you might encounter in everyday life. Infections, diseases, and even autoimmune conditions are most often the result of your gut bacteria being unable to do their job properly.

5. Maintain Gut Integrity

Your gut lining is naturally permeable, which allows nutrients to pass from the food you eat into your bloodstream. At the same time, the bacteria lining the wall of your gut act as a barrier to prevent harmful substances such as antigens, toxins, and other invaders from entering the bloodstream. They also support the uptake of nutrients, electrolytes, water, and other beneficial substances from the intestines. This is vital for healthy digestion and the normal functioning of the body. It also helps to prevent the development of food allergies, which can result from increased intestinal permeability (aka leaky gut).

When to Take Probiotics

Research shows that probiotics are best taken just before or during a meal. This allows them to survive their journey through the gut.[7]

Survivability has all to do with the pH balance of your stomach. The lower the pH, the more acidity. The higher the pH, the more alkalinity. Stomach pH is very low—around 2 to 3. This is too harsh an environment for most bacteria to survive. However, after a meal, the pH of your stomach contents temporarily rises to a more alkaline value of around 7. The reduced acidity means there is less chance of the probiotics being destroyed.

Taking probiotics within 30 minutes of a meal or during a meal has been shown to help beneficial bacteria survive in much higher numbers than when taken 30 minutes after a meal.

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Read more about when to take probiotics here: When to Take Probiotics for the Best Health Benefits?

Side Effects of Probiotics

Because most of your body’s microflora lives in your gut, this is the area most prone to side effects from probiotics. Typical symptoms may include gas, bloating, cramps, or a feeling of fullness. You may also experience a change in bowel movements. This may because the healthy bacteria are expanding in the gut, colonizing the small intestine and colon.

Extra gas may also be caused by bacteria-induced changes to your gut motility or transit time. These alterations can sometimes cause abnormal intestinal spasms or prevent your stomach muscles from fully emptying the stomach of food you’ve eaten.

These symptoms usually subside after a week or two of taking the probiotic. If you really can’t cope, try reducing your daily dose to half that recommended on the label. You can then gradually increase your dose over the following weeks. This allows your gut to adjust to the new influx of bacteria slowly.

How to Choose a Good Probiotic

A good probiotic should be designed in a way that allows the bacteria to survive the harsh acidic environment of your stomach. This means that the bacteria have a better chance of arriving at your intestines, ready to establish themselves and do their work.

Look for a probiotic supplement that uses some form of time-release technology, such as BIO-tract or delayed-release capsules that protects the probiotic bacteria and prevents them from being broken down in your stomach.[8]

CFU stands for “colony-forming unit.” This is the amount of live and active bacteria contained in each dose. There are hundreds of different strains of bacteria, and all of them have unique properties. Some of the best bacterial strains to look for in a probiotic are L. Plantarum (for protecting the membrane that surrounds your gut), L. paracasei (for its antibacterial properties that can ward off pathogens like E. coli and Candida albicans), and L. acidophilus (to regulate acidity in your gut and boost your immune system).

Generally speaking, the higher the CFU count, the more effective the probiotic. However, this depends on the way the probiotics are delivered.

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Many supplement manufacturers include fillers and unnecessary ingredients to lengthen shelf life or make the contents easier to pour into capsules. Be sure to read the ingredients label carefully as some of these “extras” can be harmful to gut health.

What Is a Good Probiotic?

Several factors go into making a good probiotic. Try to look past marketing claims about CFU counts of 50 billion, 100 billion, even 200 billion! Many supplements with high CFU counts often deliver only a few of those bacteria past your stomach acid.

Time-release tablets that use patented technologies like BIO-tract can deliver 15 times more bacteria to the gut than an equivalent probiotic in a vegetable capsule. For example, Balance ONE Probiotic contains 15 billion CFUs of bacteria. The time-release technology means it delivers the same amount of bacteria to your gut as a 225 billion CFU probiotic in a vegetable capsule.

A good probiotic should also contain at least 5 strains and preferably 10. All of those strains have different benefits and characteristics. Look for a good selection of lactobacillus and bifidobacterium strains. The more you take, the more benefits for you!

Here’s my pick of the top 3 probiotics.

1. Balance ONE Probiotic

This probiotic supplement contains 12 strains of probiotics with 15 billion CFUs per tablet. These include the most-researched strains, such as Lactobacillus Plantarum, Lactobacillus paracasei, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei, Bifidobacterium longum, Bifidobacterium bifidum, and more.

The Balance ONE Probiotic is also free from unnecessary fillers and allergens, including nuts, dairy, gluten. It’s non-GMO and vegan. It only contains strains that are already present in the human gut without any Soil-Based Organisms (SBOs) or active yeasts.

The most important feature of the Balance ONE probiotic is its patented delivery system known as BIO-tract. This special patented process involves compressing the probiotic bacteria into tablets. This means that Balance ONE probiotics can survive passage through the acidic conditions of the stomach without being destroyed. Studies have shown that this delivery method gets 15 times as many bacteria past stomach acid compared to regular vegetable capsules.[9]

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You can find it here.

2. Renew Life Ultimate Flora Extra Care Probiotic

This is a good probiotic that contains a wide variety of strains and a powerful dose. It contains a guaranteed 30 billion live probiotic cultures, including 12 probiotic strains, which makes it a good all-rounder.

Renew Life Ultimate uses delayed-release vegetable capsules, which, while not as effective as the BIO-tract system, are still an effective way to deliver bacteria to the gut. It has multiple strains for effective support and is free from gluten, dairy, and soy.

You can find it here.

3. Vitamin Bounty – Pro 25 Probiotic and Prebiotic

With 25 billion organisms per dose, Vitamin Bounty is a great maintenance probiotic. It includes 13 probiotic strains to help support overall digestive health, and it’s made with a delayed-release capsule that protects the live bacteria from stomach acidity. This helps in the delivery of the bacteria to the intestines and improves efficacy. The Fermented Greens also provide prebiotic benefits.

You can find it here.

Final Thoughts

We now know that probiotics provide us with several significant health benefits while possibly giving us some minor side effects. So, the next step is to determine what food or supplements we should look for. You can start with the recommended ones in this article. Probiotics are very beneficial for our bodies, and choosing the right brand for us can further improve the benefits we get from them.

Featured photo credit: Daily Nouri via unsplash.com

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Reference

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