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What is the Difference Between Probiotics and Prebiotics?

Probiotics and prebiotics occupy a big space when it comes to diet, health and nutrition. Both of these are similar sounding; however, they are two different things altogether with different action and benefits for your health.

Probiotics are the beneficial or the good bacteria and much needed by our body; whereas, prebiotics are the food to feed these good bacteria.(1, 2) Both of these are vital for human health and each has a different function:

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Probiotics: Probiotics are the live bacteria present in certain supplements and foods which have numerous health benefits.(1)

Prebiotics: Prebiotics are a form of fiber, which is indigestible by the human body and are consumed by the good bacteria present in our gut.(2)

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The gut bacteria are collectively known as the gut microbiota or gut flora responsible for various vital functions in the body. In order to keep your gut flora healthy, it is important to eat adequate amounts of both prebiotics and probiotics to get the right balance of these bacteria.

Why are the Gut Bacteria Important?

The beneficial bacteria present in the digestive tract provide protection to the human body from harmful fungi and bacteria. A study done in 2013 on gut bacteria revealed that having a good amount of this good bacteria in various forms helps in benefiting the immune system, helps with obesity and also helps with symptoms of depression.(3)

Other than this, a few of the gut bacteria are also responsible for formation of short-chain fatty acids and vitamin K. Short-chain fatty acids are the primary source of nutrient to the cells which line the colon and help in building a strong gut barrier, which prevents harmful substances, such as bacteria and viruses from entering the system. Other than this, it also helps in decreasing the inflammation and can potentially cut down the risk of cancer.(4)

How is the Gut Flora Affected by Food?

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Our diet and food has an important role when it comes to the balance of good and bad bacteria of the gut. If a person consumes a high fat and high sugar diet, then it negatively affects the gut bacteria and can cause insulin resistance along with other problems.(5, 6)

When the wrong bacteria gets fed like this, then they multiply easily and thrive better, thanks to the less of the good bacteria to prevent this from happening.(7)

When there is less of healthy gut flora and more of harmful bacteria, then it can lead to increased body mass index (BMI) too.(8)

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Also, the foods which have been treated with pesticides will have negative effects on the gut flora; however, more studies are needed on this.

Research has also revealed that permanent changes can occur in some types of bacteria due to antibiotics, especially if they are taken during childhood and teenage years. Thanks to the widespread use of the antibiotic, researchers are also studying the negative effects of this later on in life.(9, 10)

What are Probiotic Foods?

Yogurt is one of the popular probiotic foods, which naturally has the good bacteria. (11) Plain yogurt of high quality with live cultures is a great addition to a person’s daily diet and is an excellent source of beneficial bacteria.

Fermented foods are also a good source of beneficial bacteria as they thrive on the naturally occurring fiber or sugar present in the food.(11) Some of fermented foods which are probiotics are: Kefir (dairy and nondairy); sauerkraut; kombucha tea, some forms of pickles, kimchi and some pickled vegetables. (unpasteurized)(11)

Fermented foods when consumed with the intention of getting their probiotic benefits should not be pasteurized, as pasteurization destroys the bacteria.

Synbiotic Foods: Some of these food items can also come under the category of synbiotic, as they have both beneficial bacteria, which are the probiotics and also are a source of prebiotic fiber for the good bacteria to feed on.(12) Some of the synbiotic foods are sauerkraut, kefir and cheese.

What are Prebiotic Foods?

Prebiotics are a form of fiber present in legumes, fruits and vegetables.(14, 15)  So, it is not necessary to purchase expensive prebiotic supplements, as there are various foods which naturally contain prebiotics. The fiber which is the prebiotic cannot be digested by the human body and they are only for consumption by the good bacteria present in the gut.

Some of the foods which contain prebiotic fiber are: onions, peas, beans, legumes, leeks, oats, garlic, bananas, dandelion greens, berries, asparagus and Jerusalem artichokes. The good gut bacteria transform the prebiotic fiber into butyrate, which is a short-chain fatty acid. According to studies the production of butyrate in the colon cannot be done in the absence of sufficient amount of prebiotic fiber intake.(16)

Is it Important to Take Probiotic Supplements?

Probiotic supplements come in the form of liquids, powders and pills which contain yeast or the live good bacteria. Probiotic supplements are easily available and they are quite popular. However, not all of them are worth spending your money on and not every supplement has the same type of good bacteria or the same concentrations of it. Also, there are many products present in the market which make claims without a proof of their benefit.(17)

These products also are not derived from fibrous food sources for the bacteria to feed on and this can tamper their effectiveness if a person is also not consuming those foods.

There are certain probiotic supplements, which are made such that they transport the bacteria to the large intestine for better results, whereas other supplements likely may not go past the stomach acid.(18)

Who Should Not Take Probiotics?

Individuals with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) or those who are sensitive to ingredients in the probiotic supplement should not take any probiotics and there are some people who can experience worsening of symptoms if they take it. However, if one takes the correct strains of probiotics then it can be extremely beneficial for them. This depends on the product formula, the type of strain and the product quality and storage.(19, 20)

It is important to always consult your doctor before starting on any supplements.

Conclusion

It is extremely important to keep and maintain the balance of the gut bacteria as good gut health is important for better overall health of a person. For this, one needs to consume foods that are rich sources of both probiotic and prebiotic, as doing so will help in encouraging the ideal balance between good and bad gut bacteria.

Your healthcare provider will guide you to make sure you’re eating the right amounts of each, so as not to overdo and suffer from any side effects. Always read the labels of supplements before consuming them and discuss any doubts with your doctor before starting on them.

References:

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