Whether in yogurt commercials, in health magazines, at the grocery store, or even on your local news; odds are you’ve heard of probiotics and prebiotics. But do you know what they are, what they do, or what the difference is between them?
Both probiotics and prebiotics are key factors in good digestive health. While it can be easy to confuse the two, they are different. Probiotics are live, active microorganisms found either naturally in or added to foods and supplements. They are specific strains of (mostly) bacteria that provide health benefits beyond nutritional value.
Don’t get too concerned about eating live bacteria. Your body hosts millions upon millions of microorganisms known as your microbiome. Scientists estimate the microorganisms living on and within your body outnumber your own cells 10 to 1!
No amount of handwashing or bathing will ever get rid of them. In fact, you actually wouldn’t want to get rid of them. The vast majority of these guys will never cause you any harm, and actually do a lot of good for your body.
They help boost the immune system, protecting you from harmful bacteria. Also, they help the body function properly, and within the digestive tract, they assist in digestion and vitamin production. Recent research even suggests that our microbiome may play a significant role in weight and obesity as well as mental health!
Our microbiome is so important that wiping out a large percentage of it, whether through excessive sanitation or the repeated use of antibiotics, can actually leave us extremely vulnerable to illness. With empty real estate available, harmful bacteria (AKA pathogens) can move in and wreak havoc. This is where probiotics can (theoretically) help out. If we can cultivate and maintain healthy bacteria in our microbiome, it could have potentially far reaching health benefits.
With all of these microorganisms hanging around our bodies, they need something to eat. Prebiotics provide food for our microbiome, specifically for the good bacteria found in the gut. Everything that we eat eventually makes its way down to the intestines where hordes of hungry microorganisms wait for our leftovers. Different types of bacteria feed on different types of foods. Foods high in sugar, fat, and refined grains tend to feed bad bacteria. Good bacteria, on the other hand, thrive when fed a diet high in a certain type of soluble fiber called fructooligosaccharides (FOS) found in a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Finding Probiotics and Prebiotics
When asked about where to find probiotics, most people think of yogurt (thanks to effective marketing), but often can’t readily name any other sources. Fermented, unpasteurized foods are the best sources of probiotics. This includes foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh, kefir, and some aged cheeses. Kombucha, a type of fermented “tea”, has grown vastly in popularity in recent years for its potential health benefits as a source of probiotics. Taking probiotics in supplement form is another option for those who may not like fermented foods or have them readily available.
As previously mentioned, prebiotics are mostly from plants. You won’t find the specific type of fiber on the food label, so just eat more fiber in general. Be sure to regularly include foods high in FOS such as:
- Jerusalem artichokes,
- Whole wheat,
- Garlic, and
If you aren’t already eating these and other high fiber foods regularly, be sure to add them in gradually to avoid excessive gas and bloating. You can also get prebiotics from the food additive, inulin. Inulin is a prebiotic fiber found naturally in plants. Commonly, it is isolated from the chicory root and added to foods like yogurt, juices, ice creams, and cereals. Just keep in mind that added fiber does not make an otherwise sugary junk food healthful, and too much inulin (more than 10 grams a day) can cause digestive upset.
Potential Benefits and Emerging Research
Probiotics are often recommended because of their beneficial effects on the immune and digestive systems. Research shows that probiotics may:
- Reduce diarrhea commonly associated with antibiotic use.
- Improve intestinal regularity.
- Reduce symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome.
- Reduce gut inflammation.
- Treat and prevent vaginal and urinary infections in women.
- Delay the development of allergies in children.
However, probiotics are also being recognized for their potential in other areas as well. Some believe that probiotics may reduce incidence of illnesses such as the common cold, reduced risk of cancer, improvements in dermatological conditions, weight control, and improvements in mental health.
Research still needs to be done in this area. We still don’t know which probiotics are helpful and which are not. There are many different strains of bacteria, and it is difficult to know which strains may or may not be at work.
The interactions between these bacteria and the host can be different for each individual. Each one of us has a unique composition of intestinal flora. The same probiotics may have a different effect in different people. Even for the conditions that have been studied the most, there are still many more questions than answers. One thing is for certain; it is an exciting field of research with great potential!
Probiotics have been proven safe for all but the very sick and immunocompromised. However, in the United States, most probiotics sold are dietary supplements. This means they do not undergo the testing and approval process that drugs do. It is the manufacturer’s responsibility to ensure probiotics are safe before they’re marketed and that any claims made on the label are true. However, there’s no guarantee that the types of bacteria listed on a label are effective To treat your specific condition.
Health benefits are strain-specific, and not all strains are necessarily useful. Many microorganisms listed as “probiotics” can’t survive passage through the stomach. It’s also important to note that most of these beneficial bacteria, even if they survive to reach the intestines, are simply passing through.
Research suggests that the strains currently used in supplements and added to yogurt do not take up residence in the gut. They can still be helpful but likely won’t lead to lasting changes in your microbiome. You may want to consult a practitioner familiar with probiotics to discuss your options, and as always, keep your primary care provider informed of any supplements you may be taking.
How do you get your probiotics and prebiotics? Let us know in the comments below.
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