The difference between Probiotics and Prebiotics

14 April 2019  |  Editor

Probiotics and prebiotics play different roles for your gut health.

Probiotics are often known as beneficial bacteria, while prebiotics are the food for these bacteria.

Probiotics are live bacteria found in certain foods or supplements. They provide numerous health benefits.

Prebiotics come from types of carbohydrates (mostly fibre) that humans can't digest. The beneficial bacteria (probiotics) in your gut eat this fibre.

The gut bacteria, collectively referred to as the gut flora or gut microbiota, perform many important functions in the body so eating balanced amounts of both probiotics and prebiotics helps to make sure that you have the right balance of these bacteria and this should improve your health.

You might ask why Gut Bacteria are important.

Helping regulate inflammation

The good bacteria in your digestive tract help protect you from harmful bacteria and fungi and they also send signals to your immune system and help regulate inflammation.

Helping produce Vitamin K and short chain fatty acids.

Additionally, some of your gut bacteria form vitamin K and short-chain fatty acids.

Short-chain fatty acids are the main nutrient source of the cells lining the colon. They promote a strong gut barrier that helps keep out harmful substances, viruses and bacteria. This also reduces inflammation, and may reduce the risk of cancer.

How Does Food Affect the Gut Microbiota?

The food you eat plays an important role in the balance of good and bad gut bacteria.

For example, a high-sugar and high-fat diet can allow harmful species to overgrow.

If you regularly feed the wrong bacteria, they will grow faster without as many helpful bacteria to prevent them from doing so. The harmful bacteria may also cause you to absorb more calories so you may put on weight.

Additionally, foods treated with pesticides can have negative effects on the gut bacteria although it is accepted that more human research is needed on this.

Studies have also shown that antibiotics can cause permanent changes in certain types of bacteria, especially when taken during childhood and adolescence. Researchers are now studying how this may cause health problems in people later in life.

Which Foods Are Prebiotic?

Many foods naturally contain them because prebiotics are types of fibre found in vegetables, fruits and legumes. This fibre are not digestible but your good gut bacteria can digest them.

Foods that are high in prebiotic fibre include:

  • Legumes, beans and peas.
  • Oats.
  • Bananas.
  • Berries.
  • Jerusalem artichokes (not the same as regular artichokes).
  • Asparagus.
  • Dandelion greens.
  • Garlic.
  • Leeks.
  • Onions.

Your good gut bacteria can turn your prebiotic fibre into a short-chain fatty acid called butyrate, which has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects inside the colon. It may also influence gene expression, block the growth of cancerous cells and help provide fuel to healthy cells so that they can grow and divide normally.

Which Foods are Probiotic?

Many probiotic foods naturally contain helpful bacteria.

A high-quality, plain yogurt with live cultures can be a helpful addition to your diet if you want to add beneficial bacteria however it is disputed that such products are sufficiently present or potent to have much effect.

Fermented foods are a good option, because they contain beneficial bacteria that like the naturally occurring sugar or fibre in the food.

Examples of fermented foods include:

  • Sauerkraut.
  • Kimchi.
  • Kombucha tea.
  • Kefir (dairy and non-dairy).
  • Some types of pickles (non-pasteurized).
  • Other pickled vegetables (non-pasteurized).

If you are going to eat fermented foods for their probiotic benefits, make sure they are not pasteurized, as this process kills the bacteria.

Some of those foods can also be considered symbiotic, because they contain both beneficial bacteria and a prebiotic source of fibre for the bacteria to feed on.

One example of a symbiotic food is sauerkraut.

What About Probiotic Supplements?

Probiotic supplements are pills, capsules or liquids that contain live beneficial bacteria.

They are very popular and easy to find, yet not all of them are worth your money and they do not all have the same types of bacteria, or the same concentrations, so it is important to ensure you buy supplements of high quality form high quality brands and, as always, you usually get what you pay for.

They also usually do not come with fibrous food sources for the bacteria to eat so you will still need your prebiotic fibre.

There are some individuals who should not take a probiotic, or who may experience worsened symptoms if they do, such as people with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) or people sensitive to ingredients in the supplement.

However, the right strains of probiotics can be incredibly beneficial for some people.

Many manufacturers produce probiotics and some of the most popular are from Lamberts Healthcare. However, we very much like specialist probiotic manufacturers who specialise in probiotics and gut health. We supply these from Optibac and Renew Life. You might want to check these out and you can do so by clicking on the names. Both of them recognise that there are different scenarios that suggest slightly different formulations, for example of daily immunity or for babies and children and Renew Life also produce other digestive aids.

There are also some prebiotics available that can help enhance the food you are supplying to your probiotics. You can see these prebiotics here.

Keeping your gut bacteria balanced is important for many aspects of health. To do this, eat plenty of prebiotic and probiotic foods, as they will help promote the most ideal balance between good and bad gut bacteria.

At the end of the day, optimising your gut flora will have major benefits for your health. Do not underestimate the importance of gut health. Everyday factors such as Stress, travel, eating unhealthy Foods and even the use of some medications can upset the balance of healthy bacteria in your digestive tract. When this happens, it may lead to an occasional tummy upset that might impact your overall health. 

Nobody (hopefully) would suggest that eating the right, healthy food, can do anything but help and we show some examples of beneficial food above. But taking a daily probiotic (and possibly prebiotic) supplement may be useful in helping to promote a balanced gut to provide digestive and Immune Support.  If you are in any doubt, as always, consult your doctor or a professional nutritionist.