The Difference Between Probiotics and Prebiotics – And How to Incorporate Them Into Your Diet

Over the past few months, prebiotics and probiotics have gotten a lot of buzz. By now, everyone has heard that our gut health is massively important, with research over the past several years pointing to a heavy correlation between our guts, or microbiomes, and our overall daily wellness.

Eating cabbage – especially when fermented in the form of kimchi and sauerkraut – is a natural way to improve gut health. Photo: Heather Ford/Unsplash

Prebiotics and probiotics work together to create a healthy microbiome in your gut. “A healthy microbiome supports a healthy immune system to keep us more resistant to diseases, lowering inflammation and potentially impacting appetite,” explains Leslie Bonci, MHP, RD, CSSD, LDN, a nutrition consultant, author and founder of Active Eating Advice.

To better wrap our heads around how probiotics and prebiotics work, we looked at their main sources and how incorporating them into your daily routine could help in bolstering an active lifestyle.

Prebiotics: The 411

Dig into some serious whole grains to maximize “feeding” the good bacteria in your gut. Photo: Rawpixels/Unsplash

The lesser known of the two, prebiotics are now being spoken about more than ever before. But what are they and what can they do for you?

Prebiotics are a type of carbohydrate that is non-digestible, meaning that they are not broken down in the stomach but rather pass through the digestive tract to promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the intestines, explains Bonci.

“Prebiotics are not new and we have always needed fiber,” she says. “But as more is known about the gut microbiome, and how to foster a healthy microbiome, the interest in prebiotics has increased.” This explains why the word prebiotic is now popping up in food, capsules, powders and even beauty supplements.

Prebiotics are naturally found in foods like whole grains, greens, bananas, onions, garlic, soybeans, asparagus, wheat bran and artichokes, so it’s likely that you’ve been consuming them without even knowing it, says Bonci.

And that’s a good thing because prebiotics actually act as “food” for probiotics – in other words, we need them in order for the good bacteria in our gut to flourish. Prebiotics can also be found in fructooligosaccharides, or FOS, which is often used as an artificial sweetener, as well as in fiber supplements. They even come in powder form, which can be added directly to food or drinks.

But prebiotics aren’t all created equally. Inulin – found naturally in some prebiotic vegetables, supplements and in wheat – is difficult to tolerate for some people, explains Bonci. “For these individuals, it is better to eat foods that contain prebiotics naturally rather than rely on a supplemental form,” she says. “Men and women can have digestive distress from prebiotics in a supplement form – or from eating too many foods with prebiotics, if they have IBS.”

Probiotics & Prebiotics: Putting It All Together

A yogurt bowl is a classic way to get your probiotics in their most natural form. Photo: Peter Hershey/Unsplash Photo: Peter Hershey/Unsplash

As mentioned above, prebiotics help feed probiotics, which are live bacteria and yeasts in the gut that are good for the digestive tract. This “good bacteria,” has been known to help prevent and treat GI issues such as irritable bowel syndrome, boost the immune system and reduce inflammation and allergies.

There are two types of probiotics – lactobacilli and bifidobacterium – and some probiotic-containing foods include yogurt with active cultures, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, miso and kombucha.

“They are often defined as good or beneficial bacteria because they help keep the GI tract healthy,” says Bonci. “They can also help control symptoms of eczema and H pylori — which is the cause of ulcers — and improve urinary and vaginal health.”

One universal benefit: together prebiotics and probiotics help to create a healthy microbiome, which can be very important for anyone who loves to exercise and live an active lifestyle. “The gut microbiota may play a key role in controlling the oxidative stress that occurs during exercise, as well as controlling the inflammatory response to decrease inflammation,” says Bonci. “It may also improve metabolism and energy expenditure during intense exercise.”

probiotics prebiotics
When in doubt, eating a colorful selection of vegetables is always the right decision. Photo: Dose Juice/Unsplash

Because probiotics are certainly not one size fits all, if you’re adding them into your life, it’s best to pick based on your health concerns and what you’re looking to get out of the probiotic. Bonci suggests resources like Environmental Nutrition to find the right probiotic for you, as well as consulting with a doctor or medical professional about your wants and needs.

When it comes to probiotics, and many supplements in fact, one big issue is that they’re not heavily regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) so you might not always be getting what the packaging says. From 2016 to 2017, the FDA inspected a total of 650 facilities that produced dietary supplements and found that more than 50 percent of them had violations.

And while there may be a lot of hype around prebiotic and probiotic supplements, some research has found that probiotics may not be as beneficial as previously thought, especially for those taking them to counterbalance antibiotics. In a recent study, volunteers who completed a round of antibiotics and followed by probiotics were able to re-colonize their guts, but the colonization prevented their gut’s microbiome from returning to a normal pre-antibiotic state for months.

“Some people may respond well to probiotics but others may not, plus not all probiotics may contain what they say they do,” explains Bonci. “Food sources of probiotics may be the best bet. Buyers must be aware and make sure they are purchasing a product designed for the health issue you are trying to address.

Plus, it’s important to remember that prebiotics are the ‘fuel’ for the good bacteria in the gut to grow. “We get prebiotics from carbohydrate-containing foods, and so conceivably, those on a low carb diet may not get any benefit out of taking probiotics alone.”

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