Probiotics and Prebiotics: What's the Difference?

Probiotics and prebiotics are a hot topic in the health industry these days, as more emphasis has been placed on the importance of your gut health. With all these different ideas and concepts, it is easy to become intimidated and overwhelmed when trying to research the information you need for your own health. 

The human body is full of microbiomes, and in particular, the microbiome in your gut, because it is essential for human development, nutrition, and immunity, and it is believed that probiotics and prebiotic fiber each play their own important role in enhancing your gut health. Gut health is an important topic that is becoming increasingly researched because it communicates with your brain via your network of hormones and nerves about your wellbeing. A gut in good health will help you fight off infections, as it contains immune cells and healthy bacteria. This is because your gut consists of trillions of cells of bacteria, which each has its own function in your body. 

This article will have a look at the difference between probiotics and probiotics, and the important role they can play in your health.

What are probiotics

Simply put, probiotics are living strains of yeast and bacteria that are great for your digestive system as they increase the good bacteria that inhabit your digestive system. It is a common misconception that all bacteria are bad, however, the body is full of both good, and bad bacteria. Probiotics are seen as helpful, as they can increase the good bacteria and balance the good and bad in your gut by competing with other pathogens in your body for space to inhabit and food sources as well as release undesirable acids, which makes it difficult for the bad bacteria to continue living. It can also promote the replacement of good bacteria if you lose them (for example, when taking certain medications). There is a lot of research still being done on the role of gut health and probiotics. 

Probiotics are not just helpful for gut health, but for your entire body. Some probiotics have strains of bacteria that will have different effects in different areas of your body, for example, one may assist in cavities in your mouth, and not travel down to the gut. They have also been shown in various studies to not only be good for your physical health, such as digestion and gastrointestinal health but also your mental health, due to the gut to brain communication.

For the probiotics to take effect on the body, they must be a strong strain, or else they do not survive the journey down to the gut. This is because it first has to travel through the stomach, which can be a harsh environment for probiotics due to the acidity levels, and then into the small intestines. Depending on the conditions, for example, the acidity level, the bacteria, and the oxygen levels, certain strains of the probiotics may choose to reside there for a period.

Different types of bacteria are identified as probiotics. The two main groups that most people will be familiar with are lactobacillus, found in fermented foods such as yogurt, and bifidobacterium, found in dairy products. 

Here are some examples of where you can find probiotics:

  • Kombucha 
  • Yogurt 
  • Pickled vegetables 
  • Kimchi 
  • Sauerkraut 

Probiotics are best used as food, to supplement your diet in a positive way, as opposed to using it as medication. Probiotics are known to be safe for the general public and in particular, healthy people, but if there is ever any doubt, then you should consult a medical professional, in case they could pose a risk to any medical condition or an allergic reaction. There is not sufficient evidence that shows the severity of the side effects of taking probiotics regularly, so they should be taken properly and with caution. How and when your body may respond to probiotics will be unique to you, as your body is made up of completely different microbiomes. 

Research on how safe and effective the use of probiotics is for certain conditions, such as diarrhea, constipation, inflammatory bowel disease, sepsis, gum disease, asthma, acne, allergies, respiratory infections, urinary tract infections, and many more is growing. While there is still a lot to learn about the full potential of probiotics, they show a lot of promise as a helpful and positive supplement. 

It is important to note that probiotics should not be taken as a substitute for any professional, medical assistance. 

probiotic vs prebiotic

What are prebiotics 

Prebiotics are essentially food for good bacteria, made up of specialist plant fiber. This bacteria travels to your lower digestive tract and when consumed, enables the existing good bacteria to grow. Prebiotics are able to travel through your body and take effect because they are a type of carbohydrate compound that your body is unable to digest. Once consumed, they travel down to your lower digestive tract, ready to be consumed by probiotics. 

Prebiotics are also able to: 

  • ferment food in your digestive system quicker, which helps avoid constipation
  • keep your gut lining healthy
  • improve the rate of calcium that you absorb and the rate your blood sugar spikes with food 
  • strengthen your immune system
  • increase absorption of minerals 
  • reduce the risk of/prevent diseases such as cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, constipation, obesity, cholesterol, 

The right amount of prebiotics is important, as overconsumption can cause bloating or gas. It is recommended that you incorporate a small amount in your diet so your body can get used to them, and aim for approximately 5 grams per day. Your body should be okay with prebiotics, as they are safe for the majority of healthy people, and prebiotics already exists in your body. Prebiotics, however, should not be taken if you have medical conditions, such as small intestinal bacterial growth, or irritable bowel syndrome. 

Prebiotics can be found in a range of different foods but is best located in whole foods, as it contributes positively to a healthier diet. For example:

  • Apples 
  • Asparagus 
  • Bananas 
  • Cocoa
  • Flaxseed
  • Garlic 
  • Green vegetables 
  • Oats 
  • Onions 
  • Soybeans

Prebiotics are fiber but must meet set criteria to meet the definition of a prebiotic, as not all fiber is prebiotic. This includes:

  • The resistance to gastric acidity
  • Absorption in the upper gastrointestinal tract
  • Fermentation in the intestinal microflora
  • Stimulate the growth of good bacteria 

You may also find it added to certain foods, as opposed to found naturally. If this is the case, you would need to look for ingredients such as inulin, chicory fiber, fructooligosaccharides, galactooligosaccharides, and oligofructose. There is also some prebiotics that has been found to lack tolerance with your gastrointestinal tract, such as inulin when consumed in larger quantities. 

Summary of similarities vs. differences 

Both probiotics and prebiotics play a positive and helpful role in the gut by supporting good bacteria and organisms by building healthy digestion and gut by creating an environment that promotes good bacteria and allows microorganisms to flourish. Healthy consumption of probiotics and prebiotics has also been known to increase your physical, general, and mental health. This is because they are known to boost and strengthen the immune system, which can help many conditions that are related to a poor immune system. They both also help with healthy digestion and the prevention of many conditions. Both probiotics and prebiotics have an important role in your body, and increased variety by including sources of both in your diet can help promote a better quality of life. 

The differences first lie in the definitions and the specific roles they play. Probiotics are good, living microorganisms that the body needs, and prebiotics serves as food for probiotics, and cannot be digested by the body. This means that access to each other is essential for optimization. There is still a lot of research to be completed around the connection between probiotics and prebiotics.

Another difference between probiotics and prebiotics is the food they are found in. Probiotics can be found in fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and yogurt, whereas prebiotics can be found in whole foods that are rich in fiber, such as fruits and vegetables. With a healthy diet that contains a wide variety of whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and dairy products, you can expect to naturally obtain a good amount of probiotics and prebiotics. Supplements to increase your intake are an option, but you should always consult a medical professional first, as there are a variety of medical conditions that could impact your intake, and increase your risk of a side effect or allergic reaction. 

Both have been researched a lot in the last decade, but both also require a lot more research for more sufficient data on the full impact and role in the body, the connection between the two, allergic reactions, and side effects to having too much, and not enough, in your system. 

If you want to understand more about probiotics and prebiotics or identify whether you should be including more or less in your diet, then you should consult a medical professional. They will have the tools and knowledge to help you understand better and provide you with the right information to move forward, for a healthier gut and improve your overall well-being.