Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria, both good and bad. The good bacteria help keep the digestive tract healthy and balanced. They help us fight off disease-causing bacteria and support our immune system. This is where probiotics come in — these beneficial “good” bacteria when they are found in foods are known as probiotics. Prebiotics, on the other hand, are the “food” that good bacteria need in order to populate your gut. They are non-digestible fiber compounds found naturally in certain plants, fruits and vegetables. Although you can get prebiotics from supplements, food sources are always better because they contain other essential nutrients to support digestive health. Probiotics and prebiotics are big topics in nutrition today, and with good reason. In this article, we’ll look at the differences between these two terms and learn what they mean for our health.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics have been a major buzzword in the food industry recently, especially since mass media has started to report on their potential benefits. They are known as “good” or “beneficial” bacteria that provide health benefits when consumed in adequate amounts (19).
Some scientific evidence suggests that taking probiotics may reduce the risk of or improve digestive conditions such as antibiotic-associated diarrhea.
Probiotics are found in certain foods and dietary supplements, such as yogurt or kefir milk, sauerkraut (which is fermented cabbage) and kimchi (a Korean condiment made from pickled cabbage). Although you can get them from food sources, they’re also included in supplements (20).
Probiotics are also added to some foods, such as yogurt and certain types of cheeses. These foods will be clearly labeled “contains live and active cultures.” Health food stores also sell several probiotic supplements that claim to help restore balance in the gut flora.
What Are The Benefits Of Probiotics?
Probiotics are intended to help restore and maintain a healthy gut microbiome. From there, they are believed to help keep our entire system in balance and support critical functions in the body. Keep in mind that most of the potential health benefits associated with probiotics are theorized but not proven, and that we are very far from understanding the effects and interactions of specific strains of bacteria. It’s also important to note that when clinical studies have found benefits, the effects are usually not maintained after probiotic use is stopped.
Some of their potential benefits include:
Lower Risk Of Allergies And Stronger Immune System
A healthy microbiome is important for a healthy immune system. It is believed that alterations in the microbiome due to events occurring during infancy or childhood (such as prematurity, infection, or cesarean delivery) may influence the risk of certain diseases, including allergies. Some scientists have theorized that taking probiotics to correct these alterations could therefore improve immune system development at this crucial stage of life and perhaps prevent allergies and other diseases. This theory, however, has yet to be substantiated (24) (25).
Possible Relief From Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) And Other Gastrointestinal Disorders
Probiotics may be helpful in treating irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other gastrointestinal problems. Results from a meta-analysis of several studies suggest that probiotics can help reduce the severity of IBS symptoms, such as abdominal pain and bloating (7). Moreover, certain strains have been seen to reduce the severity of symptoms in people with inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis (30).
Probiotics are sometimes used to help correct vaginal dysbiosis (bacterial imbalance) in women. Whether this has an impact on fertility or pregnancy outcomes is still unclear. High quality studies are few and inconsistent, and much more evidence is needed on this topic and specific strains before recommendations can be made (21).
Protection Against Infection
A few human studies suggest that probiotics may help protect against respiratory tract infections, such as the common cold and flu, although this effect was modest (32). They also seem to lower the risk of getting diarrhea during certain antibiotic therapies (23).
Improved Oral Health
It has been theorized that probiotics could help prevent periodontal disease and dental caries by outcompeting the harmful bacteria which cause them and/or through immune system modulation (35).
Improved Prostate Health
Certain probiotic strains produce peptides which are known to inhibit cell proliferation. The hope is that probiotics for men may in the future be found to help prevent prostate enlargement (benign prostatic hyperplasia), which is a common condition that can lead to urinary problems. Those peptides (not the whole bacteria) have been seen in mice to have some effect on prostate hyperplasia but more research is needed (31).
Probiotics may also improve testosterone levels and improve the quality of sperm, but once again, more research is needed (26).
Probiotics might help reduce anxiety and depression by improving communication between the gut and brain. Some research has shown that certain types of probiotics could alleviate anxiety in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome (3).
What Are Prebiotics?
Prebiotics are mainly indigestible carbohydrates that aren’t broken down in the stomach. They pass through most of the digestive system until they reach your colon, where they become food for your good bacteria (16).
By providing a source of food for beneficial bacteria, prebiotics help keep you healthy and reduce risk of disease.
Prebiotics also are used to make certain vitamins and minerals more available in your body (15). For example, calcium is more absorbable when it’s eaten with prebiotic fiber. Bacteria that ferment prebiotic fiber produce short chain fatty acids as a byproduct, which your intestinal cells can then use as fuel. Fiber also helps increase the bulk of fecal matter, making it easier to pass through the intestines.
Prebiotics are mostly found in certain vegetables, fruits and grains that have high levels of soluble fiber. These foods are often known as “prebiotic foods” or “prebiotic fiber sources” (12). You can also find prebiotics in some supplements, although they’re most commonly found in food.
Inulin is a common prebiotic supplement ingredient. In addition to being a source of soluble fiber, it may increase calcium absorption and improve digestive health (14).
Prebiotics can be found in asparagus, onions, leeks and garlic. Other good sources of prebiotics include:
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Green bananas
- Legumes (beans and lentils)
- Chicory root
- Dandelion greens
- Jicama (a root vegetable)
- Ripe bananas
- Sweet potatoes
Prebiotics are also added to some foods, such as cereals, beverages and bars. These foods will be clearly labeled “contains inulin” or will be reflected on the nutrition facts label as “soluble fiber.”
Some prebiotic supplements come in the form of oligosaccharides (chains of sugars) like fructooligosaccharides (FOS) and galactooligosaccharides (GOS) (15).
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What Are The Benefits Of Prebiotics?
The main function of prebiotics is to feed probiotics. While at it, they offer many more benefits such as:
Promote Regular Bowel Movement
Prebiotics (aka fiber) are known for reducing constipation by adding bulk to the stool. People who are struggling with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), IBD, Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis can benefit from taking foods high in prebiotic fiber (9).
Promote Colon Health
You may also reduce inflammation and digestive discomfort as a result of promoting the growth of good bacteria (17).
Protect Your Gut From Harmful Bacteria
Promoting the growth of good bacteria is believed to help prevent the colonization of harmful bacteria in the gut.
Prebiotics may also be a helpful addition to a treatment regimen that includes antibiotics and probiotics in patients with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), which is linked to IBS, diarrhea and malabsorption (8).
Increased Calcium Absorption For Stronger Bones
Prebiotics may increase calcium absorption, which can lead to stronger bones and might help prevent osteoporosis. They may also improve the solubility of other minerals like magnesium and iron, which are important for blood and bone health (14).
Improve Blood Sugar Control
The high levels of fiber provided by prebiotic foods can help slow down the rate at which glucose is absorbed into the bloodstream after a meal, which can be helpful in maintaining good blood sugar control in people with diabetes.
Promote Healthy Weight Reduction
Help Reduce Cholesterol
Prebiotic fibers can also help reduce bad cholesterol (LDL), which can ultimately lower your risk of cardiovascular disease (5).
What About Synbiotics?
Synbiotics are supplements that contain both prebiotics and probiotics (18). They provide the benefits of both ingredients in one supplement, which is particularly convenient for people who can’t or don’t want to eat large amounts of prebiotic foods.
How To Improve Your Gut Health With Probiotics And Probiotics Foods
Although probiotics are found in supplements and some foods, you can also get them from your diet. Just make sure you’re choosing the right ones. If you want to try adding more probiotics to your diet, these three suggestions will help:
Eat Prebiotic Foods
Several types of fruits, vegetables and grains contain the carbohydrates that are the building blocks of probiotics. They are considered “prebiotic foods.”
If you want to get more prebiotics into your diet, eat:
- Raw or cooked onions
- Raw or cooked garlic
- Artichoke hearts
- Legumes (beans and lentils)
- Green bananas, ripe bananas or plantains
- Jicama (a root vegetable)
If you want to add prebiotic supplements, look for inulin in the Supplement Facts panel. It will be listed as “inulin” or “chicory root extract.”
Take Supplements That Contain Both Prebiotics And Probiotics
These supplements allow you to get the benefits of both in a single product, which can make it easier for people who don’t like to eat large amounts of foods with fiber. Look for the term “synbiotic” on the label, and make sure that it contains both prebiotics and probiotics.
Eat Foods That Naturally Contain Probiotics
Some fermented foods contain natural probiotics, which can provide the same benefits you get from supplements or added prebiotics. These foods are often known as “probiotic foods” or “probiotic-fermented foods.” They include:
- kefir (a fermented milk drink)
- kombucha (fermented black tea beverage)
- miso (a paste made from fermented soybeans)
- tempeh (fermented soybean food)
- Unpasteurized sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables
- Yogurt (the kind with live and active cultures)
Reduce Your Sugar Intake
In fact, a high-sugar and low-fiber diet may increase your risk of colon cancer (6).
If you want to improve your gut health or prevent problems, be sure that most of the sugar you eat comes from whole foods like fruits and vegetables, rather than added sugars such as refined white sugar.
Reduce Your Fat Consumption
People who eat too much unhealthy fat, particularly the saturated fat found in cheese, whole milk and fatty meats like bacon and sausage, may have an increased risk of colon cancer (34).
If you want to improve your gut health or prevent problems, try eating less saturated fat.
You may notice that it is hard to give up some of your favorite foods, but if you want to get the benefits of probiotics and prebiotics, it’s essential.
Here are some fatty foods you should avoid for your gut health:
- Fried foods
- Full-fat dairy products like whole milk, ice cream and cheese
- Hydrogenated oils (trans fats)
- High fat red and processed meats (such as bacon or beef brisket)
If you want to keep enjoying your favorite fatty foods without the harmful effects of too much saturated fat, stick to ones that are naturally low in fat or are low-fat, such as skinless chicken breast.
Because your body needs fat to perform various functions, you do not need to eliminate it from your diet. In fact, some fats are good for you and can actually improve your digestive health (1).
Here are some healthy fats you may include in your diet:
- Monounsaturated fats found in olive oil, avocado and nuts
- Polyunsaturated fats found in seeds like flax, nuts and fish
- Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts
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Avoid Antibiotic Overuse
Make sure you don’t take antibiotics unless you really need them to treat an infection. Even then, talk to your doctor about taking the lowest effective dosage and for the shortest amount of time possible.
You should also ask your doctor about taking probiotics while you are on antibiotics or soon afterwards. This can help restore the balance of good bacteria in your gut. Also, be sure to take care of yourself by eating more prebiotic foods during and after your antibiotic treatment.
Lower Your Body Mass Index (BMI)
Obesity and related metabolic conditions have been associated with alterations in the composition of bacteria in the gut (33).
The cause and effect relationship isn’t clear, but it can’t hurt to maintain a healthy weight by balancing the amount of food you eat with the energy you expend every day. For most people, this means getting about 30 minutes or more of exercise five days a week. It can also help to eat more prebiotic fiber-rich foods, since they help keep you full and support the growth of good gut bacteria.
Manage Your Stress Levels
Stress can wreak havoc on your gut health (29). Many people turn to foods that are rich in sugar and saturated fat as a way to cope with stress. Unfortunately, these foods just make things worse because they may exacerbate the negative effect of stress on your gut bacteria.
If you want to maintain healthy levels of gut bacteria or improve them over time, try to manage your stress levels. Meditation, yoga and other relaxation techniques can be effective ways to decrease the negative effects that stress has on your body.
You should also try to eat more prebiotic foods.
Eat A Variety Of Whole Foods
Whole foods provide fiber and other nutrients that help keep you healthy and promote good gut bacteria.
Your gut bacteria rely on fiber for food. This is what they use to multiply and maintain the very structure of your intestinal lining (12). So, it’s important that you get plenty of high-fiber foods in your diet every day.
There are two types of dietary fiber: soluble and insoluble. Both types help promote healthy digestion and gut bacteria. However, soluble fiber is especially good for your digestive health because it helps control blood sugar levels and lower cholesterol levels (11).
You should eat a variety of fiber-rich foods every day. These include:
- Vegetables like artichokes, broccoli and Brussels sprouts
- Fruit like pears, apples and blueberries
- Legumes like beans, peas and lentils
- Nuts like almonds, peanuts and pecans
- Whole grains like whole-wheat flour, brown rice and quinoa
If you want to improve your gut health or prevent problems, be sure to eat more of these types of foods.
The Bottom Line
Prebiotic vs Probiotic Foods – What’s the Difference?
The best way to improve your gut health is to eat a healthy diet filled with both prebiotic and probiotic foods. However, it can be difficult to get all of your recommended daily servings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains every day.
Taking a supplement might make it easier for you to consume the proper amount of good bacteria. There are many supplements on the market today, but there is little regulation.
Note that some products contain billions of active cultures while others have more specific strains that target certain ailments, like urinary health or cholesterol levels. Most of those claims are unsubstantiated. No matter which product you end up choosing, be sure to make it a regular part of your daily routine. Or better yet, simply eat foods naturally rich in probiotics and prebiotic fiber.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
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