Probiotics vs. Prebiotics: What’s the Difference?

Probiotics and prebiotics are both essential for good health and a great quality of life. You’re probably familiar with probiotics, the health-promoting bacteria that live in your digestive tract. More recently there’s been a lot of talk about prebiotics.
Prebiotics are equally important to your health with significant impacts on your health and well-being. But what’s the difference? Let’s take a close look…

What is a Prebiotic?

A prebiotic is a form of non-digestible fiber that stimulates the activity of probiotics. While it’s true that all prebiotics are fiber, not all types of fiber are prebiotics. Perhaps the easiest way to think about prebiotics is as food for probiotic bacteria.
Researchers have defined three qualities that define whether a fiber is a prebiotic or not. To be a prebiotic, a fiber must :

– Survive stomach acids and digestion in the small intestine;
– Ferment in the large intestine; and,
– Encourage the growth and/or action of the intestinal, or probiotic, bacteria that support your health.

Since prebiotics feed probiotics, it’s essential to get enough prebiotic fiber in your diet. When you do, you’ll support the good probiotic bacteria living in your digestive tract which translates into better digestion and incredible health benefits.

Benefits of Prebiotics and Probiotics

Probiotics have been shown to have amazing impacts on every aspect of human health. Researchers have found getting and maintaining healthy probiotic levels:

– Improves digestion
– Decreases digestive discomfort like gas, bloating and indigestion
– Reduces inflammation in the colon
– Protects the intestines from damage in people sensitive to gluten
– Limits or prevents food allergies

And that’s only the digestive benefits of probiotics! Your entire body and even how you feel is affected by probiotics. Studies show probiotics –

– Improve thinking and reasoning
– Protect memory, with researchers seeing “significant” results in those who consume probiotics
– Promote a positive mood ,
– Boost your immune system and immune response
– Make you more resistant to cold viruses
– Enhance your ability to deal with stress
– Strengthen bones by increasing bone mass
– Support healthy blood sugar and protect against fatty liver ,
– Offers general protection to the liver
– Helps with weight loss

Now, as prebiotics support probiotics in your digestive tract, they would indirectly support all of these health benefits. Researchers however report taking prebiotics is associated with health benefits of their own.
In one study, taking prebiotics reduced appetite and feelings of hunger in a placebo-controlled trial involving overweight children. Other health benefits according to researchers include :

– Reducing the risk of heart disease
– Improving blood sugar levels
– Promoting regularity and bowel health
– Supporting a healthy body weight
– Helping reduce inflammation throughout the body
– Increasing absorption of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients

Some researchers have investigated the effect of supplements that include both prebiotics and probiotics. One study found the combination improved inflammation and supported liver health by reducing the impact of fatty liver disease in patients with normal body weight. In another study, researchers found the combination improved male fertility. Additional research suggests the combination improves many of the health benefits listed above.
Based on the research, it’s not prebiotics vs. probiotics. It should be prebiotics and probiotics. Quite simply, you want them both.

Types and Best Sources of Prebiotics

As noted above, not all fiber provides prebiotic benefits. Scientists have identified the following fibers as meeting all three requirements to qualify as a prebiotic :

– Inulin
– Lactulose
– Galactooligosaccharides (GOS)
– Psyllium
– Wheat dextrin
– Beta-glucan
– Pectin
– Polydextrose
– Fructooligosaccharides (FOS)

This list is good if you’re evaluating a supplement, especially one that contains a prebiotic. It should contain one of these.
For foods, most fruits and vegetables provide some amount of prebiotic fiber. Foods identified by scientists as the best sources of prebiotic fiber include :

– Asparagus
– Leeks
– Chicory
– Jerusalem artichokes
– Oats
– Onions
– Wheat
– Soybeans
– Garlic
– Banana

You Need Prebiotics and Probiotics

According to archaeologists, the average hunter-gather ate around 135 grams of prebiotic fiber daily. That’s a far cry from average 15 grams of fiber the average adult gets every day and even the American Heart Association’s recommendation of 25 to 30 grams daily from food sources (as opposed to supplements!).

To get enough fiber, the simple answer is more fruits and vegetables. However, it can’t be done overnight and can be tough in the modern world. And to ensure the most from the prebiotic fiber you do eat, it’s important to keep probiotic levels strong.
If you do choose to take a probiotic supplement in addition to adding probiotic foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso soup, or any other available probiotic foods, look for one that includes a prebiotic. The presence of a prebiotic increase the likelihood that the probiotic bacteria you’re taking will become established in your digestive tract where they can provide their amazing health benefits.

References:

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[1] Slavin J. Fiber and Prebiotics: Mechanisms and Health BenefitsNutrients. 2013;5(4):1417-1435. doi:10.3390/nu5041417.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Ibid.

[1] https://www.ucsfhealth.org/education/increasing_fiber_intake/