When the topic of gut health arises, it is common for one to come across words like ‘prebiotic’ and ‘probiotic’. As similar sounding as they might be, they both have distinctive meanings and sets of unique features. However, their value in gastrointestinal health is of similar importance and value.
A simple way to word the most important difference between them is:
- Probiotics are the health-benefiting microorganisms found in the gut or digestive tract of the body.
- Prebiotics are the insoluble fibers that act as nutrition to these beneficial bacteria and yeasts living in the gastrointestinal tract.
What is gut and the gut microbiome and why is its health important?
Gut means the digestive system or the gastrointestinal tract of the body. It includes all those organs involved in getting food inside your body and digesting it. This means, the gut starts from the very beginning – the mouth and ends at the anus.
Our body contains almost 10 times more microbial or bacterial cells than human body cells. Which is about 39 trillion (approx.), microorganisms that reside throughout our body – inside our skin along with the organ linings, in our blood, eyes, and along with outer skin layers. However, this bacterial presence is not a harmful entity. A maximum percentage of it is what we commonly refer to as ‘friendly’ or ‘residential’ gut bacteria. And an abundant number of microbial cells reside in our gut, which can be commonly referred to as gut microbiota or gut flora. And when we talk about these microorganisms along with their genes then it is called the gut microbiome.
Why are gut microbiomes so important?
Bacteria is a word that we more often than not associate with harm and diseases. However, that’s not always the case. In fact, naturally occurring beneficial bacteria start growing within our bodies since we develop in the womb and continue to grow, develop and multiply over the years. This continues till our very last days. These are not harmful entities or parasites living in us. They are good bacteria that need to be nourished and detoxified regularly as we grow up. In doing so, this leads to refurbished healthy gut flora. Which positively affects immunity, physical health, mental health, cardiovascular health, brain health, metabolism, and energy levels.
Good bacteria can help your body heal and grow healthy without letting any harmful viruses or microorganisms take permanent residence in your immunity. If it so happens that your body registers a loss of these healthful bacteria in your gut environment, then it can lead to health-harming illnesses. This means that these are ‘friendly’ bacteria that help internal body functions go smoothly. The gut microorganisms, for example, aid in a smooth digestive process and healthy small and large intestines, alongside other benefits as well.
Thereby, nourishing the gut flora protects you from serious health problems like
- Bacterial or fungal diseases,
- IBS (irritable bowel syndrome),
- Gastrointestinal problems,
- Digestive health problems,
- Cardiovascular health problems,
- Malnutrition and many more such terrible medical conditions.
In fact, our gut flora is so immensely important to our health, that its benefits stretch beyond just boosting the digestive health. Its benefits can be recorded and scientifically backed in four major categories –
- Mental health, and
- Brain health.
What is dysbiosis?
Dysbiosis is the condition when there is an imbalance in the gut flora. The gut microbiome needs proper care and prebiotic nourishment to thrive. However, because of the lack of such prebiotic and probiotic treatment in the gut environment, it leads to a disruption of the working friendly bacteria. This can happen due to a number of reasons such as:
- Bad diet,
- Lack of sleep,
- Under-eating or
- Misuse of medicines.
Being sick from flu or other illness can also lead to leaky gut and dysbiosis. The effects of it include inflammation, leaky gut, and constant immune activation which leads to physical and mental exhaustion and rapid energy depletion.
What are prebiotics?
Thriving good microorganisms in the gut are vital for our immunity and wellbeing. However, like every other organ and part of our body, they also need fuel and energy to live and develop. This is achieved through prebiotics. The balance of gut microbes depends on the quality and quantity of prebiotics you provide your gut.
These are fibers that are non-digestible and survive in the gut and intestines. Thereby, enabling the nutritive flow of healthy energy and food sources for the bacteria and other good microorganisms residing in the digestive tracts. Furthermore, Prebiotics are vital for gut flora and digestive health.
Types of Prebiotics and in what forms are prebiotics available?
There are numerous types of prebiotics available, however the most common of them are –
- Fructans – This consists of inulin and fructo-oligosaccharide or oligofructose. Previous research showed that fructans were especially important in boosting lactic acid bacteria only. However, recent studies show proof that fructans improve overall gut health by boosting several types of gut bacteria.
- Galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) – GOS is vital for good bacteria like Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli in our gut. But aside from that, GOS also stimulates the growth and health of other gut microbiota bacteria such as – Enterobacteria, Bacteroidetes, and Firmicutes.
- Starch and glucose-derived oligosaccharide – Polydextrose is a glucose-derived oligosaccharide that contains a hefty dose of glucan. Research shows that it may stimulate the growth of bifidobacteria.
- Non-carbohydrate oligosaccharides – Carbohydrates are most commonly associated with probiotics, however, there are certain compounds that are not carbohydrates. But they fall into the category of prebiotics anyway. For example – flavanols. The prebiotic is derived from cocoa.
- Other oligosaccharides – Pectic oligosaccharides fall under this category.
Prebiotics are widely available in food form and in supplement form as well. They are usually high-fiber foods with lots of dietary fibers in them. For example, the fiber called inulin is commonly found in plant-based food products like bananas, chicory roots, etc. Inulin is a popular form of prebiotic that has high nutritional content to nourish gut flora.
Similarly, prebiotics with all-natural benefits can also be acclaimed from prebiotic supplements and gut multivitamins. Using supplements to improve prebiotic, probiotic or nutrition deficiency in your body is not unhealthy and is definitely recommendable. In fact, with the growth of scientific research behind the wonders and side effects of supplements, there have been several supplements introduced on the market for gut health. All have a similar set of benefits and may differ in their production, ingredients, etc. Choose your prebiotic supplement wisely. Check for the ingredient lists and avoid the ones with additives, fake flavors, allergens, GMOs, artificial colors and preservatives, etc. [Also Read: Doctors Recommended #1 Gut Health Supplement.]
What foods have natural prebiotics?
Prebiotic-rich foods are usually plant-based and can be found in fruits, vegetables, certain edible plant roots, and whole grains. And some prebiotics can also be found in dairy products as well. The following items are top-ranking food sources when it comes to prebiotic content.
- Chicory roots
- Dandelion greens
- Green vegetables
- Konjac root
- Yacon root
Benefits of Prebiotic Foods:
As discussed earlier, gut microbiota plays a significant role in major human health categories. Here are some of the benefits that prebiotic foods provide.
- IBS, IBD, and Crohn’s disease – When there is a lack or imbalance in the population of Bifidobacteria, Bacteroides, Firmicutes, and Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, it can lead to IBS and Crohn’s disease.
IBS is irritable bowel syndrome whose symptoms include irregular bowel movements accompanied by painful stomach cramps and bloating, constipation, etc.
Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammatory bowel disease called IBD. To treat and heal your gut from all these problems, you need to take proper prebiotics to heal and nourish the helpful bacteria in the gut. When the gut flora starts healing, these diseases and symptoms start decreasing naturally and your body heals fast.
- Probiotics boost the production of short-chain fatty acids which provide protection against inflammation.
- Protection from colorectal cancer – When it comes to colorectal cancer, studies have shown a link to these bacteria in the gut – Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Bifidobacterium Lactis. When they are treated and boosted with doses of prebiotics like inulin, it leads to a reduction of colorectal cancer risks and symptoms. Short-chain fatty acids produced with the help of prebiotics also help reduce the risks of colorectal cancer.
Prebiotics boosts the growth and health of immunity preserving bacteria and microorganisms. Therefore, protecting your body from disease-causing harmful bacteria. Some of the many benefits of prebiotics for immune health include –
● Boosted antibody response towards vaccines like influenza and measles.
● Side effects of vaccines are reduced.
● Diarrhea related fevers in infants and children are also healed by prebiotics.
● Antioxidant properties help fight free radicals.
● Helps calcium and trace mineral absorption for healthy bones.
● Subsides risks of atopic dermatitis and eczema in infants and kids.
The ‘gut-brain axis’ of our body connects the gastrointestinal tract of our body to the central nervous system. Therefore, it is proven knowledge that gastrointestinal health or gut microbiota health affects our brain.
● In fact, it has adverse effects on our mood, concentration, memory, and learning skills.
● Proper treatment of prebiotics has been proven to improve cognitive function.
● Reduction in over-secretion of stress hormones.
● There has been links between autism to gastrointestinal health problems. In fact, gastrointestinal disorders have been recorded as one of the most common and obvious symptoms of autism spectrum disorders.
The usage of prebiotics has shown positive effects on skin health. It protects the skin from allergies, harmful bacteria, and skin problems.
Prebiotics are proven to reduce risks of Cardiovascular health disorders by reducing inflammation, restoring cholesterol levels, reducing fatty acids concentration, and providing heart health relieving benefits. These are the many indirect benefits of prebiotics.
To treat and heal your gut from all these problems, you need to take proper prebiotics to heal and nourish the helpful bacteria in the gut. When the gut flora starts healing, these diseases and symptoms start decreasing naturally and your body heals fast.
How often and for how long should one indulge in prebiotics?
Sometimes immediately after you start using prebiotic supplements, you may feel slight bloating. It is nothing to worry about as it is a natural reaction. After a short span, it accommodates into your gut environment and starts healing your gut. If you feel that the bloating and slight discomfort is growing after the first few doses, cut the regular doses in half. Take only one supplement a day.
If you take your probiotics through food, then there is not much to worry about.
If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, minor, or are under medications, then take advice from a licensed healthcare provider before getting on supplements.
The long-term benefits of probiotics start working in your body within the 2nd or 3rd week. So, if you start feeling the health benefits of prebiotics then after some more time, you may cut your doses in half (depending on the brand of the supplement). And after some time, you can slowly put a stop to the use. However, prebiotics and probiotics are like nutrition, hence they can be taken continuously for maximum long-term benefits.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are live microorganisms or ‘friendly bacteria’ in common terms. They can be found naturally in our gastrointestinal tracts of the body and are available in abundance in fruits and a lot of food sources as well. And these probiotic foods have a lot of health and immunity benefits when consumed.
What bacteria are found in probiotics?
The most commonly found probiotic microorganisms are beneficial bacteria like – Lactobacillus, Enterococcus, Streptococcus, Bacillus, and Bifidobacterium. It also includes some fungal strains and yeasts of the Saccharomyces genus as well, such as Saccharomyces boulardii (S. boulardii).
In what forms are probiotics available?
Probiotics can be found in fermented foods or they can be consumed in dietary supplement form. Aside from benefiting gut bacteria, probiotics also have beneficial skin healing agents. So, it can also be found in liquid or gel form in beauty cosmetics.
What foods have natural probiotics?
Fermented foods are associated with probiotics. Here is a list of probiotic foods that have ample health benefits –
- Kefir (a type of fermented milk)
- Sauerkraut (fermented cabbage)
- Tempeh (fermented soybean)
- Kimchi (fermented cabbage)
- Aged cheeses
- Fresh dill pickles
- Traditional buttermilk (not cultured)
Benefits of probiotics:
Probiotic foods and supplements provide health benefits such as –
- They contribute to keeping a healthy balance of gut microorganisms in the digestive system.
- They assist with proper digestion and help prevent diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and other gastrointestinal disorders.
- The antimicrobial and antioxidant properties of healthy probiotics help treat various health and gut problems.
- Probiotics have been proven to reduce the risk of asthma attacks and allergies.
- Probiotics also play a role in preventing diseases like cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular problems, obesity, and depression.
- They also heavily influence immunity. Good quantity and quality of probiotics in the body are equal to good gut microbiota and good immunity of the body.
- Probiotics may improve athletic and physical performance by improving blood flow to muscles, reducing muscle cramps, healing inflammation, and increasing metabolism.
- Probiotics improve sleep quality and better energy production.
- Probiotics enhance brain function by promoting neuron health and protecting against neurodegenerative diseases.
Various other gut problems can be treated and reduced by taking care of the prebiotic and probiotic needs of the gut.
How often and for how long should one indulge in probiotics?
The warning before getting on probiotic supplements is the same as the one in the prebiotic section. Take medical advice before using probiotic supplements, if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, minor, or are going through medical treatments.
Use recommended doses of pills every day. If it so happens that you are allergic to probiotic supplements or to certain ingredients of the supplement that you use, then change the product. Or reduce daily doses.
After you have achieved your goals, you can slowly discontinue the use.
What is the interrelation between prebiotics and probiotics?
For probiotics to thrive and work better, our body needs prebiotics. And prebiotics are there to influence the health of the gut and immunity through boosting of the probiotics.
There are various foods and sources that contain a combination of prebiotics and probiotics. Those types of food sources are called synbiotics. The balanced mixture of symbiotics contains prebiotics that is indigestible fibers, which help the probiotics, beneficial bacteria, to survive the acids of the stomach and intestines. Thus, helping the gut to restore and refurbish the gut environment with healthful microorganisms. Simultaneously, helping boost the immune system of the body, gut flora, and metabolism.
Why should you maintain a balanced diet of prebiotics and probiotics?
Maintaining a balanced diet is important and actively recommended by all doctors and dieticians. Prebiotics and probiotics improve digestive health. However, alongside just maintaining the nutritional value of regular meals, it is just as important to fulfill the particular needs of the gut. This means that you need to find out what your gut’s health is like. After all, it is the gut’s health that determines your general health and mood. Leaky guts are easy to notice and feel. A regular and constant occurrence of constipation, bloating, cramps, loose stools, lack of hunger, and such other tells are symptoms of a leaky gut.
To heal a gut with chemicals and just medicines is a temporary relief. But it is necessary to heal the gut and immunity naturally while aiming for long-term benefits. Thus, try to feed yourself a well-balanced and regulated diet of nutritionally enriched meals consisting of both prebiotics and probiotics or synbiotics. And if you find that difficult because of a busy and erratic lifestyle then prebiotic or probiotic supplements are also available which can be used by most healthy adults without a prescription (unless you have pre-existing health conditions).
Conclusion: A comparison table
|Food sources||Fruits, vegetables, edible plant roots, cocoa, grains, and dairy products.||Fermented food products and dairy products.|
|Supplements||Available in supplementary form.||Available in supplementary form.|
|Side effects||May lead to bloating on initial use.||It May cause bloating and thirst on initial use.|
|Time period to take effects||2-3 weeks||1-2 weeks|
|Physiological functions affected|
|Ease of availability||Widely available. Both in food form and in dietary supplementary form.||Fermented foods rich in probiotics are also widely found across the globe. Supplements are also not uncommon.|
Sources linked :
Tim Koping (Medical M.Sc Physiology, Founder of Original Eating, and a Professor at a Leading Health Institute in the US): I am a medical M.Sc physiology graduate and the founder of Original Eating, an online resource that provides information and advice about healthy eating. I have a strong interest in health and nutrition, and I am passionate about helping people to eat well and live healthily. I have over 15 years of experience working in the health and nutrition industry, and I am dedicated to providing accurate, reliable information that can help people to make healthy choices for themselves. My work with Original Eating has been featured in publications such as Men’s Health and more, and I am frequently consulted by journalists for expert commentary on dietary issues. However, in my spare time, I also enjoy reading, hiking, and playing the guitar.