In recent years, prebiotics and probiotics have become more popular. What’s the buzz all about? How are the two different? And is one better than the other?
These two are incredibly helpful when it comes to your gut. Your digestive tract, particularly the colon and large intestine, is home to trillions of microorganisms, some good, some bad.
The good stuff in your gut have many functions that go beyond digestive health: It manufactures vitamins, turns fibers into fats for optimum metabolic functions, and strengthens your immune system. The bad stuff can flourish as a result of an unhealthy diet, particularly one that is high in sugar and fat. Having an abundance of bad bacteria in your digestive tract may lead to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer, among other diseases. Studies have shown that prebiotics and probiotics help keep the gut flora balanced so that you stay healthy and keep diseases at bay.
What are Probiotics?
The word “probiotic” means “for life.” Its definition has evolved since its inception in the 1950s; it may have been coined to differentiate it from antibiotics that may have harmful effects on the body. Its current accepted definition was formulated by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations: “live strains of strictly selected microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.”
Simply put, probiotics are live microorganisms that do wonders for your gut flora. They predigest food, putting less burden on your digestive tract. They fight off bad bacteria that would otherwise wreak havoc on your gut. They also strengthen your gut lining and help with detoxification.
A review in the journal Nutrients culled together the current information on probiotics and prebiotics. It stated that results of clinical studies “confirm the positive effects of probiotics on gastrointestinal diseases (e.g., irritable bowel syndrome, gastrointestinal disorders, elimination of Helicobacter, inflammatory bowel disease, diarrheas) and allergic diseases (e.g., atopic dermatitis).” Probiotics can also be used as a treatment for obesity, type 2 diabetes, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Some reports suggest that it may have some effect on different types of cancer.
It’s somewhat surprising that probiotics have been shown to manage conditions that seemingly have nothing to do with the digestive tract (such as atopic dermatitis), showing that the effects of a healthy gut flora are far-reaching.
The review notes that the effectivity of probiotics “may depend on the strain, dose, and components used to produce a given probiotic product.” It’s best to consult with your physician before adding a probiotic supplement to your diet, especially if you have existing health issues. In the meantime, consider adding probiotic-rich foods to your diet.
Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and yogurt offer plenty of probiotics. If you aren’t making your own and are instead opting for commercially produced items, make sure that the label indicates that there are “live and active microorganisms” and “live cultures.”
What are Prebiotics?
The FAO and the World Health Organization define prebiotics as “a nonviable food component that confers a health benefit on the host associated with modulation of the microbiota.” In short, it’s also good for your gut! The difference between prebiotics and probiotics is that while probiotics are bacteria, prebiotics are indigestible food that may feed and thus sustain the probiotics in your gut.
The review notes that prebiotics can be used on their own or to support probiotics. Some of the associated prebiotics benefits include a reduced risk of colorectal carcinoma, lower cholesterol, and an improved immune system.
You can get prebiotics from high-fiber foods like fruit, vegetables, and cereals, particularly tomatoes, artichokes, bananas, asparagus, berries, garlic, onions, green vegetables, legumes, oats, and wheat. Prebiotics are also available in supplement form.
If you come across supplements called “synbiotics,” those are sort of a two-for-one deal, containing prebiotics plus probiotic strains. Take note, however, that synbiotics haven’t gone through a lot of clinical studies so their effectivity still hasn’t been proven.
Aside from including prebiotics and probiotics in your diet, you can also live a lifestyle that promotes a healthy gut and overall health. Don’t abuse antibiotics, avoid high-sugar and high-fat foods, keep your stress levels in check, exercise, and get enough sleep.