While “probiotics” has become a buzzword lately, prebiotics have been quietly doing their job behind the scenes. At this point, most people have heard at least a thing or two about the incredible, edible probiotic. You can hardly get through a TV show without having to listen to a yogurt commercial actress explain their amazing value.
But what about prebiotics?
Despite spending the bulk of their time outside of the spotlight, they are just as important to your gut health as probiotics. For probiotics to thrive inside of your body, they need prebiotics.
Prebiotic vs Probiotic: What’s the Difference?
Although their names sound quite similar, prebiotics and probiotics are most definitely not interchangeable. Both have unique and critical jobs.
So, who is doing what?
In the most basic terms, you can think of probiotics as those good, friendly bacteria that keep your gut (and, in turn, the rest of your system) in check.
Probiotics work against potentially harmful bacteria to create the perfect equilibrium. To do this, probiotics need to find the energy to keep doing their job.
Prebiotics provide probiotics with just that by serving as the food for probiotics and giving probiotics everything they need to function at their peak to fight against the “bad” bacteria inside of your body.
While probiotics are living microorganisms, prebiotics are non-digestible, non-living carbohydrates that are basically eaten up by probiotics.
If you can imagine probiotics as soldiers fighting a war against sickness and disease, probiotics are the bags of potatoes that get sent over to their camps. They are truly the life force of the fight.
So, while their names sound alike and work together, they are ultimately two very different things.
Ready to explore a bit more in-depth? Here’s everything you need to know about these two powerhouses and what makes them distinct.
What Exactly Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are the good bacteria that live all over your body, with the highest concentration in your digestive system. We call them the good bacteria because they fight against the bad bacteria (AKA the stuff that makes us sick).
They are a relatively new discovery in the sector of health and medicine. They were first researched in the early 20th century and were just officially defined by The World Health Organization (WHO) in 2001. According to the WHO, probiotics are “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health beneﬁt on the host.”
Most of us get these amazing little microorganisms from dairy, particularly yogurt. People who have trouble digesting dairy or who need additional probiotics get them in supplement form, the best of which come with even more potent benefits. Regardless of how you get yours, the benefits of probiotics have been proven to treat everything from eczema to depression to indigestion.
While the list of things that probiotics can do is more than impressive, there’s one issue: these good gut bacteria are incredibly delicate. Excess stomach acid and even heat can kill them. Dietary mistakes like not getting enough protein and getting too much fiber upset them. And of course, antibiotics, laxatives, and environmental pollutants can wipe them out as well.
Add those of us who can’t digest probiotics properly, and you get a whole lot of people with a serious probiotic underpopulation problem happening in our guts.
Well, this is where prebiotics can really help. When probiotics are struggling, prebiotics give them the energy they need to get the job done.
What Are Prebiotics?
Prebiotics is a generalized term given to the little things inside your body that aid in the growth and development of probiotics. Prebiotics are a particular sort of plant fiber that provides nourishment for the probiotics inside of your gut.
Without prebiotics, probiotics wouldn’t be able to provide your body with all of their much-touted benefits.
How prebiotics work is pretty simple: Rather than digesting the plant fibers that make up prebiotics, your body pushes them straight to your gut, where they can come to the rescue of struggling probiotics.
Unlike probiotics, prebiotics are tough. They can’t be destroyed by stomach acid, heat, or other bacteria. While probiotics have to compete with thousands of bacteria species that are all fighting for power inside of your gut, prebiotics have it pretty easy. They are tossed straight down to your gut, where they go to work uninterrupted and provide probiotics with the fuel they need to fight their crucial battle.
The Dream Team: Prebiotics and Probiotics
You probably already know how dramatically probiotics can transform your health. Over 100 trillion bacteria live inside your GI tract, and keep a balance between all of those different types of bacteria is absolutely critical.
Your immune system is dependent on probiotics to maintain the delicate balance necessary to your entire body.
If you’re interested enough in gut health to read up on prebiotics, you probably already know about some of the amazing things that probiotics can do for you. The list of ailments that can be prevented and treated with probiotics is truly amazing. It includes diarrhea, upset stomach, lactose digestion, irritable bowel syndrome, allergies, eczema, stress, anxiety, and inflammatory bowel disease.
Did I mention that probiotics can even help you lose weight?
Considering the range of benefits that probiotics confer on your body, it only makes sense to nourish and nurture these helpful bacteria, which begins with supplying plentiful prebiotics.
Why Gut Bacteria Is Beneficial
Did you know that the good bacterium in your gut is beneficial for protecting you against harmful bacteria and even fungi? Gut bacteria can also form Vitamin K and short-chain fatty acids. Short-chain fatty acids are a primary source of nutrients for the cells lining the colon. They promote a much stronger gut barrier while keeping out harmful substances like viruses and bacteria, reducing inflammation.
Food Affecting Gut Microbiota
In addition to prebiotics and probiotics, the foods we consume also have a role when it comes to balancing our good and bad gut bacteria.
If you follow a high sugar and high-fat diet, you will find that this will negatively impact your gut bacteria and contribute to insulin resistance.
Harmful bacteria alongside unhealthy gut flora have also been associated with a high body mass index (BMI).
The following are some probiotic foods you can consume in addition to your probiotic supplements or in place of. Remember, the foods we eat are also a great source.
- Plain yogurt
- Non-dairy and dairy kefir
- Unpasteurized pickled vegetables
- Sourdough bread
There are several foods that also naturally contain prebiotics as well. Some of these foods are listed below.
- Beans, peas, and legumes
- Dandelion Greens
- Leeks and onions
Remember, prebiotics are essentially a dietary fiber type that we cannot digest; however, our gut bacteria can. So, when these foods are digested, the nutrients are given to the bacteria, which then supports immune health and healthy digestion.
So, in their own indirect way, prebiotics are providing just as many benefits as probiotics. By going into your gut and fertilizing the good bacteria, your body can fight against everything from serious disease-causing bacteria to that terrible too-much-spicy food feeling in your stomach.
Still have questions when it comes to prebiotic vs probiotic supplements for digestive health? Read on for answers to some of the more commonly asked questions.
Can you take prebiotics and probiotics together?
Yes. You can take prebiotics and probiotics together. It is also called gut microbiome therapy. The prebiotic fiber can feed and strengthen your probiotic bacteria. When you take both in combination, you will find that it can make the probiotic supplement you take much more effective.
When is the best time to take prebiotics and probiotics?
Some experts recommend taking a probiotic supplement on an empty stomach, which means taking it first thing in the morning before eating. However, others advise us that it should be taken at least one hour before a meal. You can take your prebiotic and probiotic supplements at the same time.
Which strains of bacteria do high-quality probiotics contain?
Beneficial bacteria strains in high-quality probiotics often include the genus Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, or Saccharomyces boulardii. These are some of the more researched probiotics. When choosing a probiotic, you should also find one that contains at least 1 billion colony-forming units as well.
Do you need both prebiotics and probiotics for good gut health?
Prebiotics and probiotics are important for helping keep your gut bacteria balanced. So, taking supplements and eating probiotic and prebiotic food can help you promote the right balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut.
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