Probiotic foods and supplements add soldiers to your army, and prebiotics give the soldiers the support they need.
In other words, probiotics are the beneficial bacteria, and prebiotics are the food for these bacteria.
These days, Gut health is been a hot topic in the health world. We have been hearing more than ever the terms “prebiotics” and “probiotics”. But despite of their popularity you might not know what role they each play in maintaining a happy gut.
Before you can understand how prebiotics and probiotic affect your health, you need to know about the microbiome.
All multicellular organisms, including every animal and plant, are covered in a vast array of microorganisms, also known as microbes. They are extremely small (microscopic), living organisms such as bacteria, viruses, and yeast. They live on our skin, in our body fluids, and throughout our digestive tract in large quantities and varieties. The moment we are born, we come into contact with countless microorganisms; at any given moment there are just as many, if not more, single-celled organisms on you than there are cells that make up your own body! This collection of microorganisms, what we call microbiome, is unique to each individual.
We live in symbiosis with these microorganisms – we give them a place to live and food to eat, and they, in turn, offer us a lot of support. They produce certain vitamins and short chain fatty acids, interfere with the growth of harmful bacteria, modify the immune system, and improve our health in ways researchers are only beginning to study.
However, microbes that are more harmful than helpful sometimes overrun our microbiomes. That’s where probiotics and prebiotics come to the rescue; we can use these tools to modify the balance of the microbiome and create a system that works for us instead of against us.
Good Vs. Bad bacteria
When we think about the bacteria that colonize our intestinal tract, we typically sort them into two categories: beneficial strains of bacteria (non-pathogenic), including those in the genera Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus, and potential disease-causing strains of bacteria (pathogenic).
Beneficial bacteria keep pathogens in check and offer many health benefits. Disease-causing bacteria release proteins and toxic byproducts that can cause infection and harmful symptoms such as diarrhea.
The balance between “good” and “bad” bacteria is important for maintaining health. Several factors can upset this balance, including diet, stress, and medications, particularly antibiotics. Adding prebiotics to the diet and taking probiotics changes the microbial population and their activity, fortifying the number of good bacteria in the gut. An increase in good bacteria can also help limit the number of harmful bacteria, since they compete for food sources and adhesion sites on the intestinal mucosa.
The beneficial bacteria that populate the digestive tracts of individuals who consume probiotics and prebiotics work protecting against harmful bacteria; regulating the responses of the immune system; strengthening the tissue of the bowel wall; helping to digest food; producing vitamins such as thiamine, riboflavin, vitamin B12, and vitamin K; enhance absorption of some minerals; improve symptoms of some digestive diseases and disorders; help regulate weight; and improve heart health.
Modifying the Microbiome
When the microbiome is out of balance, there are a few ways to go about remedying the problem.
Prebiotics and probiotics both support the body in building and maintaining a healthy colony of bacteria and other microorganisms, which supports the gut and aids digestion.
- Probiotics: Living strains of bacteria that add to the population of good bacteria in your digestive system.
- Prebiotics: Specialized plant fiber that acts as food for the good bacteria. This stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria that are already present in your gut. It’s important to note that all prebiotics are fiber, but not all fiber is prebiotic
So basically, probiotic foods and supplements add soldiers to your army, and prebiotics give the soldiers the support they need. Or in other words, probiotics are the beneficial bacteria, and prebiotics are the food for these bacteria.
They work together to maintain the balance of healthy bacteria by helping populate the live microorganisms themselves (the probiotics) and feeding those microorganisms (the prebiotics).
Benefits of Probiotics:
• Digestive health
Numerous studies have found that probiotics may improve digestive health in some people.
• Mental health
It is possible that probiotics have this effect because there is a link between gut and brain health.
• Gastrointestinal health
The results of studies generally suggest that people with disorders affecting the stomach and intestines may see improvements with probiotics.
A systematic review of trials in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) found that probiotics seem to improve the symptoms of this condition. However, the authors caution that it is unclear how significant the benefit may be or which strain of probiotic is most effective.
• General health
The authors of a 2017 review of 17 Cochrane reviews considered the evidence supporting the potential benefits of probiotics.
They found that probiotics may decrease:
- The need for antibiotics
- School absences from colds
- Gestational diabetes
- Vaginal infections, such as yeast infections
However, the review did not find high-quality evidence that probiotics can prevent illness, and the authors conclude that more trials are necessary.
Many foods are rich in probiotics, including:
- Kefir (dairy and nondairy)
- Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and kimchi
- Traditional fermented buttermilk
- Fermented cheeses, such as Gouda
- Miso soup
- Pickled vegetables
Benefits of Prebiotics:
Prebiotics are a component of some foods that the body cannot digest. They occur naturally in many foods, so there is no need for people to take prebiotic supplements.
When you eat these foods, the prebiotics stay intact through the stomach and small intestine, then bacteria in the large intestine break the fibres down (fermentation) and use them as fuel. This allows these bacteria to reproduce, leading to larger colonies of good bacteria.
The benefits of prebiotics are linked to the benefits of probiotics but research in probiotics is still in its early stages, and many of the benefits are still largely theoretical. For those reasons, and because potentially helpful prebiotics can be found readily in many fruits and vegetables, it’s best to consume your prebiotics naturally whenever possible.
Prebiotics are in many high-fiber foods, including some fruits, vegetables, and whole grains:
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Dandelion greens
- Apple skin
- Chicory root
Babies get access to prebiotics through breast milk, and some infant formulas also contain prebiotics.
How to Get the Most Out of Them
Before you start taking prebiotics and probiotics, there are a few things you should keep in mind to make sure they’re as effective as they could be.
- Before taking a probiotic, talk to your doctor about which specific products would be best for you. Your ideal probiotic(s) will depend on your digestive health, which diseases you do or don’t have, your diet and lifestyle, and many other factors.
- Make sure your probiotics are kept cold in the refrigerator — heat can kill them.
- Prebiotics occur naturally in many foods, so there is no need for people to take prebiotic supplements.
- If you’ve recently taken antibiotics because of a bad infection, those can kill the good bacteria in your gut — not just the bad ones. So it’s worth repopulating after you’ve finished your treatment consuming Probiotic supplements.
There is currently no evidence that taking prebiotics and probiotics together (called symbiotic) is harmful. However, people who have chronic diseases or serious illnesses should avoid probiotic or prebiotic supplements unless a doctor advises otherwise.
*This article has informational purposes only, even if this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.