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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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