If you have ever heard of prebiotics and probiotics, you might be wondering why they are increasingly becoming important and often-discussed topics in the nutritional field.
While both of them sound similar, they have very different roles for health.
Prebiotics are a form of fiber that is indigestible by the human body.
Probiotics are living microorganisms such as bacteria and yeast found in the body.
Both prebiotics and probiotics work hand-in-hand to assist the body in the development and maintenance of bacteria and other microorganisms that ensures optimal gut health and digestion.
What about their differences and do they only benefit gut health? Is one more important than the other?
Let’s find out some more about this fascinating area.
Benefits of Probiotics
Research on probiotics suggests that they may have positive effects on certain aspects of health, from the obvious digestive and gastrointestinal, to mental- and heart-health.
Probiotics and Digestive Health
You have probably heard that probiotics will help you with your digestion and research does support it. For example one study found that introducing probiotics into the diet of individuals on antibiotics resulted in a significant decrease in antibiotic-related diarrhea of up to 60 percent (1).
Additionally probiotics have been found to be able to reduce the risk of preterm infants contracting necrotizing enterocolitis — a life-threatening disease that affects the intestinal walls of premature infants (2).
Regardless of age, it seems that probiotics can be useful for maintaining good digestive health. So, if you are suffering from poor digestion, perhaps probiotics might be able to help you improve your situation.
Probiotics and Gastrointestinal Health
Given that probiotics are likely able to help improve digestive health, it should be no surprise that they can aid proper gastrointestinal functioning too.
A systematic review of 18 research papers studying 1650 people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) suggests that probiotics could reduce the symptoms of this gastrointestinal condition (3).
While the results are optimistic about the benefits of probiotics in treating this condition, the authors also pointed out that further research is required to identify the best and most effective species and strain of probiotics to ensure maximum benefit.
Perhaps in the future, probiotics could be the new treatment method for people with gastrointestinal health issues such as IBS.
Probiotics and Mental Health
Contrary to popular belief, probiotics may benefit more than just your gut health. A growing body of research has indicated that probiotics may also promote better mental health.
Another systematic review of 10 scientific papers studying over 400 individuals found that consuming probiotics seem to have positive effects on improving various symptoms of depression (4).
Probiotics and their effect on mental health could be attributed to the fact that the gut and the brain are actually physically and biochemically interlinked in multiple ways. With millions of nerves and neurons running between the two organs, improving the healthy bacteria in your gut microsystem would likely affect the brain too (5).
Probiotics and Heart Health
Consuming probiotics could reduce the risk of contracting heart disease.
This is because certain bacteria strains found in probiotics seem to be particularly effective at reducing the level of “bad” LDL cholesterol and increasing levels of “good” HDL cholesterol (6).
Bacterial strains such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium longum and Lactobacillus reuteri have been identified as bacteria that are good for improving cholesterol health.
Cholesterol levels have been linked to heart disease. By improving HDL cholesterol levels and lowering LDL cholesterol levels, they are likely to have benefits to your heart health.
Benefits of Prebiotics
Prebiotics are substances found in foods that our body is unable to digest. They are used as food for the bacteria and microorganisms in the gut.
Despite being labeled as bacteria, which we often think of in negative terms, gut bacteria are important and beneficial to your health as they work together with your immune system to protect you from harmful microorganisms and also help to reduce inflammation (7).
Some gut bacteria are also instrumental in forming vitamin K and short-chain fatty acids. These serve as the main source of nutrient and energy for the cells lining the digestive tract.
This creates a strong gut barrier that keeps out harmful viruses and bacteria that your digestive tract is exposed too. This process in turn decreases inflammation and it is thought it could even reduce the risk of certain cancers (8).
Apart from promoting the growth of good gut bacteria, recent studies have also suggested that prebiotics could have an array of positive effects on general health such as increasing the rate of calcium absorption and enhancing the body’s ability to process carbohydrates (9).
Similar to probiotics, prebiotics can also affect your brain health.
For example, one study revealed that consuming a form of prebiotic known as galactooligosaccharide over three weeks led to a reduction in the production of cortisol — a stress hormone that is know to be detrimental to mental health when elevated for a substantial period of time (10).
Side effects of prebiotics and probiotics
When it comes to starting a new supplement, it is always advisable to speak to your healthcare provider to determine your suitability for consuming any form of supplementation.
Current research suggests that certain groups of people may not be suitable for probiotic supplementation.
Individuals suffering from Crohn’s disease were more likely to experience negative effects when they consumed a certain type of probiotic (11).
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health also mentioned that probiotics may not be 100 percent safe for individuals who have serious pre-existing medical conditions (12).
There is currently no evidence that consuming prebiotics and probiotics together is harmful to one’s health.
However, if you are suffering from chronic diseases or other long-term medical condition, you may want to avoid probiotic and prebiotic supplements unless they have been prescribed by your doctor.
Instead you could consider getting your prebiotics and probiotics naturally from whole foods.
Sources of Prebiotics and Probiotics
If you eat a well-balanced healthy diet filled with whole foods, fruits and vegetables, you are likely to have access to many types of prebiotics and probiotics naturally.
Here are some food sources to consider should you feel the need to increase your probiotic or prebiotic intake.
- Fermented foods (e.g. kimchi, sauerkraut)
- Pickled vegetables
- Dark, leafy vegetables (e.g. spinach, kale)
- Fiber-rich fruits (e.g. bananas, oranges, apples, berries)
- Whole grains (e.g. oats)
- Beans, legumes and peas
- Dandelion greens
When consuming fermented food, you might want to make sure that they are pasteurized as this process gets rid of any bacteria that could be harmful to the body.
Some of these foods have dual benefits, containing both bacteria that are good for the gut and providing a prebiotic fiber as a nutrient source for the bacteria.
The best part about these foods is the convenience of getting them. Many of these foods can either be made at home or purchased from your local supermarket — there goes your excuse for not consuming them!
Are supplements the best sources of pre/probiotics?
Probiotic supplements contains live beneficial bacteria that are typically available in pills, capsules or liquid form.
Sometimes, other dietary health supplements such as super greens powders may also have added probiotics in their formula to aid digestion and improve gut health.
While these are popular and easily accessible they may differ in the strain of bacteria and the concentration levels. They also do not come with fiber sources to serve as nutrients for these bacteria so it is advisable to ensure you are consuming both.
Probiotic supplements are designed to send specific strains of bacteria to the human gut. When the right strains of probiotics are used they can be extremely beneficial for individuals who need it.
You may have noticed that because probiotics are live bacteria, they therefore require certain types of environmental conditions for survival.
Often being prepacked and stored in containers at room temperature in stores may not be the most ideal living conditions for these microorganisms.
Given their short shelf life and less-than-ideal storage conditions, the strain you are buying may therefore not be as potent or effective as it should be — if it’s not as effective, should you still spend money on suboptimal supplements?
If you’re looking for dietary health supplements, why not consider supplements that are more effective, potent and value-for-money, like super greens?
Eating a balanced diet containing any prebiotics or probiotics may help to ensure that you have a good balance of healthy gut bacteria in your body to support a strong immune system.
For most healthy individuals, unless prescribed by a medical professional, there most likely isn’t a need to specifically take prebiotic or probiotic supplements. That said, the risk involved is probably nil for those who do not have pre-existing medical conditions.
Perhaps the best way to ensure that you are hitting all your daily prebiotic and probiotic requirements is through a healthy diet.
Ensuring that your diet has a good balance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fermented foods would allow you to naturally obtain prebiotics and probiotics.
Sticking to a healthy well-balanced diet does more than just benefit your gut health. It would seem it can also ensure that you are consuming all the vitamins and minerals required to maintain a healthy mind, body and soul.