Have you ever wondered what the difference is between probiotics and prebiotics? Here we’ll look at both, what they do and how to get them.
Could the key to preventing disease and improving overall human health lie in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract? After all, nearly 70% of the immune system is located in the gut. This important work takes a village, more accurately a large intestine with trillions of tiny helpers reporting for duty.
The gut needs support to stay healthy and keep the good bacteria flourishing. Here we will look at two important pieces to supporting optimal gut health-probiotics and prebiotics.
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What is the microbiome?
The microbiome is the microorganisms that live in our intestinal tract. They support our digestive system as well as promote a healthy immune system.
The gut microbiome is home to a vast assortment of microorganism species, including live bacteria, fungi, and yeasts. The different types of species in the gut are called microbiota.
The makeup of the gut microbiota is unique in each individual person, and is dependent on many factors including genetics, environment, diet, and use of medications.
In healthy people, the microbiota exist in a symbiotic (mutually beneficial to human and bacteria) relationship to the human body, delivering benefits like enhanced nutrient absorption and immune function.
Bacteria are the most common of these health-promoting microorganisms and are characterized by several different species and strains. Many of these “good” gut bacteria have a special designation, they are classified as probiotics.
What are probiotics?
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) define probiotics as “live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host”. The benefits experienced in the human body differ by species, strain, and number of the organisms present. The most recognized probiotic species include Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Saccharomyces, Streptococcus, Enterococcus, Escherichia, and Bacillus.
Probiotics gained attention because of their ability to halt the growth of pathogenic (the clinical term for causing infection or disease) microorganisms in the gut by competing for resources.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Russian zoologist and researcher Elie Metchikoff identified what became known as the probiotic principle. He stated that the microbiota in the GI tract could be changed for the better if the good gut bacteria outnumbered and replaced the infectious bad bacteria, which could result in decreased incidence of disease.
Probiotic foods and supplements
There are many foods, primarily ones which are fermented, that contain live microbes, most commonly known as live cultures. Sometimes the cultures are added to create a food product, such as dairy products with added L.acidophilus. There are also several examples of the microbe species occurring naturally as part of the fermentation process. These foods include kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, kombucha, and yogurt.
Not all of the live microorganisms in fermented foods are considered probiotics because they may not be the specific species and strains demonstrated to have beneficial effects or have the adequate number of organisms which can positively influence the gut flora.
Additionally, many of the bacteria may be killed in the highly acidic environment of the stomach or degraded in the small intestine, rendering them unable to reach the large intestine and gut microbiome.
Probiotics supplements are sold commercially in forms including capsules, powders, gummies, and liquids. Most supplements contain mixed cultures (multiple types of bacteria) rather than single specific bacteria strains.
The probiotic species are measured in what are called colony forming units (CFUs), which correspond to the number of viable cells present. Typical probiotic supplements have a dosage of 1 to 10 billion CFUs, with some products as high as 50 billion CFUs per dose.
While the massive amounts of good gut bacteria species in probiotic supplements may seem promising, these products are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Current labeling requirements do not ensure that the microorganisms will still be alive at the time of supplement use. Side effects from probiotics are not usually serious in healthy people (bloating and/or gas may occur), but they might cause bacterial infections in individuals with serious illness and/or compromised immune systems.
It is a lot of work for probiotic bacteria to reach the large intestine and dominate the gut flora to the point that pathogenic growth is diminished. So what are the ways to increase the odds of the good gut bacteria surviving the rough digestion process, thriving in the microbiome, and symbiotically supporting the human body? Prebiotics.
What are prebiotics?
For probiotic bacteria to outnumber and dominate the infectious microorganisms in the GI tract, they need proper fueling and nourishment. Simply put, prebiotics are the nutrients that allow the good gut bacteria to get to where they need to be (the colon) and effectively do their jobs.
Prebiotics are made up of complex carbohydrate compounds called oligosaccharides. These oligosaccharides are not digestible in the human body, so they reach the colon in their whole form.
The probiotic bacteria in the colon use digestive enzymes to break down the prebiotics through a process known as fermentation. Fermentation results in products like short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), which are associated with notable health benefits like improving nutrient absorption, enhancing immunity, and reducing inflammation.
There are prebiotic supplements as well as supplements containing both probiotics and prebiotics. However, prebiotic foods can also consumed. Prebiotics are most widely available in plant foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.
Dietary fiber is a commonly found prebiotic which offers a myriad of health benefits, including promoting digestive regularity and lowering cholesterol.
The difference between probiotics and prebiotics and why you need both
Probiotics are the live microorganisms themselves, while prebiotics are the plant-based compounds which enhance the colonization of good gut bacteria. Both can eb found in dietary supplements or in food.
Prebiotics enhance the spread of probiotic species and increase the likelihood of probiotic organisms’ survival in the GI tract. Additionally, the more readily available prebiotics are, the more types of good gut bacteria strains will be able to colonize in the colon.
Diversity is an asset in the gut microbiome, it is best to have as many species and strains on the “good guys” side instead of the infectious side!
Additionally, the research indicates that there are several health benefits associated with combining probiotics and prebiotics, including getting both in the diet. A study found that combining consumption of yogurt and fruit may positively influence the gut microbiota and help people select nutrient-dense foods over energy dense snacks which contribute to obesity and Type 2 Diabetes.
Benefits of probiotics and prebiotics: what the research says
There have been several human studies in which probiotics and prebiotics demonstrated beneficial health outcomes. These include improvements in digestive health and gastrointestinal disorders, reducing risk for chronic diseases, and even positive impacts in psychiatric conditions.
Long term antibiotic use, which may be necessary to treat serious infections and diseases, may reduce the favorable bacteria species while targeting the pathogen. The most common side effect associated with antibiotics is diarrhea, which can lead to serious health problems like dehydration and nutrient malabsorption.
Probiotics, particularly L. rhamnosus, were found to lower the incidence of antibiotic-associated diarrhea and may help restore the balance of favorable bacteria after disruptions to the microbiome.
There is some support for probiotics in the treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Subjects in several probiotic intervention trials experienced reductions in severity of IBS symptoms.
Research suggests that having favorable microbiota in the gut may play an important role in lowering risk for cardiovascular disease development. A study by Oniszcuk et al in Molecules found that human studies featuring probiotic strains and prebiotics resulted in reduced oxidative stress, inflammation, and LDL cholesterol (known colloquially as “bad cholesterol”).
Additionally, Short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) were found to have an inverse relationship with hypertension (high blood pressure) risk. Individuals with hypertension and heart disease were more likely to have lower levels of SCFA.
Mental Health Conditions
There is some evidence that probiotics may have promising effects on mental health, particularly depression. A 2020 review in Current Nutrition Reports discovered multiple human studies in which subjects with major depressive disorder experienced significant reduction in depression symptoms after supplementation with probiotics.
The improvements in mood may be attributed to a communication pathway known as the microbiota gut-brain axis, in which the gut microflora successfully signal the peripheral and central nervous system.
A diverse gut is a healthy gut: probiotics, prebiotics, and overall health
Both probiotics and prebiotics have important roles in maintaining the symbiotic relationship between the gut microbiota and the human body. Having a diverse assortment of good gut bacteria strains in the microbiome is most likely to promote positive health outcomes and decrease risk for disease.
While the probiotic microorganisms are the ones who thwart the growth of pathogenic microbes and boost the immune system, prebiotics provide the nourishment and fuel that allow the probiotic strains to colonize and thrive.
Probiotic supplements may be beneficial and warranted when the microbiome has been disrupted, such as after a course of antibiotics, but they may not be necessary for healthy people. Meanwhile, probiotic and prebiotic-containing foods are full of valuable nutrients and can contribute to a favorably balanced gut microbiome.
Additionally, it is best to seek out dietary supplements which have a verified higher quality standard, such as ones approved by the USP.
Be sure to eat a regular dose and a variety of prebiotic and probiotic foods, even if you have a healthy gut. Probiotic and prebiotic-containing foods are full of valuable nutrients and can contribute to a favorably balanced gut microbiome.
Check out this post if you are looking for home remedies for leaky gut.
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If you need help consuming more prebiotic foods, check out our post on building the perfect health smoothies.
All included information is not intended to treat or diagnose any disease or medical condition. Always consult your healthcare provider for medical questions and before beginning or changing any dietary or supplementation regimen.
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