What is the Difference Between Prebiotic and Probiotic?
Physical hygiene is an essential aspect of health and wellness. We shower, wash our bodies, shave, dry off, moisturize when needed...but have you ever stopped to think about your internal hygiene? I know what you're thinking. Yes, our insides usually take care of themselves as long as we fuel our body with healthy, nutritious meals and avoid excessive amounts of harmful substances such as sugar and alcohol.
But what if there was something you could do to aid your body in its natural ‘hygienic’ process?
What Is Good Bacteria?
In the gastrointestinal system, bacteria called microbiota, or flora, exist to assist with the digestion of food. This is good bacteria, or bacteria that protects from harmful bacteria or fungi from making themselves at home in your gut.
Microbiota also communicate with the immune system and manage discomfort. This bacteria is essential for the overall operation of the gastrointestinal system.
Now, if you are interested in promoting the regeneration of good bacteria in your system, you have probably heard of the terms prebiotic and probiotic to support gut health.
Prebiotic vs. Probiotic
Because of the similarity in their names, they can be a bit confusing to differentiate. Nonetheless, an easy way to remember the difference between the two terms is: probiotic foods add to your existing good bacteria, while prebiotics support your existing bacteria.
Prebiotic: A fiber that is indigestible by humans and serves as food to the good bacteria that already exists in your gut. Oftentimes stimulates the growth of new bacteria.
Examples of prebiotic foods: bananas, onions, garlic, berries, legumes, asparagus, oats, leeks, apple skin and chicory root.
Probiotics: Live bacteria that contribute to the population of good bacteria, or flora, in your digestive system.
Examples of probiotic foods: Miso soup, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, kefir, and unpasteurized pickled vegetables.
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Just like anything in life, balance is important. By maintaining a balanced gut bacteria through consuming plenty of prebiotic and probiotic foods, you will be able to maintain a steady balance between both good and bad flora.
Benefits of a Healthy Gut
Some of the benefits of having a well maintained, regular amount of good gut bacteria are improved immune system functions, weight management and even better mental wellness.
Boosts Your Immune System
Certain strains of probiotics and prebiotics can support your immune system by secreting protective substances. They can also prevent the growth of pathogens, which use essential nutrients to power their harmful, disease-spreading goals.
Your gut aids your mucosal immune system (MIS), and probiotics can stimulate signals within the immune cells that increase immunoglobulin A+ cells and T cells. T cells can also help improve other cells’ immune function.
Immunoglobulin A+ are essentially proteins that function as antibodies within your immune system. Antibodies function very similarly to T cells, targeting foreign antigens to fight germs.
By stimulating both immunoglobulin and T cells, probiotics can be extremely helpful when supporting overall health.
Helps with Weight Management
Probiotics may affect your appetite and the way your body creates energy due to their production of butyrate, propionate, and acetate short-chain fatty acids.
Lactobacillus strains of probiotics are able to stop fats from being absorbed and increase the amount of fat excreted through stool, meaning that your body extracts fewer calories from your food. This aids weight loss and weight maintenance by reducing the amount of fat stored in your body.
Angiopoietin-like 4 (ANGPTL4) protein levels may also be increased through some strains of probiotics and prebiotics, which helps regulate fat storage even more.
Probiotics can also help reduce appetite by triggering appetite-regulating hormones peptide YY (PYY) and glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1). Not only do these hormones balance your appetite, they might even be able to help you burn more calories.
Improves Mental Health
Probiotics have antidepressant properties that can help with mood disorders alongside regular medication. There’s evidence that your gut bacteria send signals to your central nervous system (CNS), showing a brain-gut connection.
Although more research is needed to prove causality, there’s a known correlation between gastrointestinal issues and mental illness. The signals your gut sends to your CNS may trigger mood changes, so aiding your gut health with prebiotics and probiotics can improve your overall mental health.
Gut bacteria can also alter hormone production due to bacteria’s neurotransmitters, amino acids, and short-chain fatty acids sending signals to the CNS. Healthy gut bacteria can help regulate mood outside of mental illness, reducing academic stress, negative moods, and psychological distress.
Supports Normal Digestion
Probiotics and prebiotics have been shown to reduce diarrhea, both in patients with antibiotic-associated diarrhea and in patients with other forms of diarrhea.
Lactobacillus casei bacteria, Lactobacillus rhamnosus bacteria, and Saccharomyces boulardii yeast are all associated with a reduced risk of diarrhea.
When probiotics and prebiotics correct gut bacteria imbalances, they fight pathogenic bacteria that may contribute to infectious diarrhea.
While research hasn’t discovered why probiotics and prebiotics are so beneficial for digestion, it probably relates to probiotics and prebiotics lowering pH levels in the colon, which can facilitate stool movement.
How Can I Support My Gut Health?
Eating fermented foods like kimchi, kombucha, and miso will increase your probiotic levels naturally, and fibrous foods like bananas, whole grains, Jerusalem artichoke, and garlic contain prebiotic carbohydrates.
These dietary additions should be supported by probiotic and prebiotic supplements. Consult with your primary care physician prior to adding them to your regular routine.
A great starting point to determine if a supplement is right for you is through the The World Gastroenterology Organization Global Guidelines. It is an online, evidence based guide about the difference between prebiotics and probiotics, and who specifically would benefit most from them.
Supporting your gut health isn’t just about adding good habits, however. Artificial sweeteners like aspartame may increase bad bacterial strains that contribute to metabolic ailments, and the amount of sugar in the standard Western diet negatively impacts the gut microbiome. Reducing sugar and sweetener intake can help regulate your gut while you fortify your microbiome with probiotics and prebiotics.
Avoiding stress can also help support your gut health, as stress can disrupt the living microorganisms in your GI tract. Finally, ensuring that you get a restful night’s sleep will also ensure that your gut flora isn’t negatively affected by disturbed sleep.
The main similarity between prebiotic and probiotics are that they aid in the overall well being of the digestive system. Prebiotics stimulate growth through indigestible plant fibers, while probiotics are a live strain of good bacteria that immediately contribute to the amount of existing bacteria in your digestive system.
Regardless of the growth or addition of bacteria, they both help with a variety of biological tasks -- including nutrition to cells that line the digestive tract. If you are considering beginning a probiotic, be sure to consult with your doctor first to determine what's best for your health. And remember, always trust your gut!
Your Digestive System & How it Works | NIDDK
World Gastroenterology Organisation Practice Guideline | World Gastroenterology
Beneficial Effects of Probiotic Consumption on the Immune System | Karger
Probiotics and Prebiotics: What's the Difference? | Healthline
8 Health Benefits of Probiotics | Healthline