In our ongoing pursuit of health and well-being, we’re diving deep into the intricate world of our gut microbiome to demystify a topic of burgeoning interest – Probiotics vs Prebiotics.
These terms are more than just health buzzwords; they represent a profound shift in our understanding of how the trillions of microbes residing in our bodies contribute to our overall health. While both probiotics and prebiotics are instrumental in fostering a healthy microbiome, understanding their differences, how they function, and how to effectively incorporate them into your lifestyle can significantly impact your health journey.
This blog post seeks to illuminate the concepts of probiotics and prebiotics, unravel their benefits, and highlight the power of symbiotics, offering you a comprehensive guide to achieving optimal gut health.
What is the microbiome and why does it matter?
Current researchers estimate that the human body contains about 30 trillion microbes, many of which we know very little about. However science is discovering daily just how big a role our human ‘microbiome’– the unique community of bacteria, fungi and other microbes that live in the gut, skin, lungs and other tissues– plays in our general health.1
In particular intestinal microflora influences metabolism, the health of the digestive tract, immune defence and inflammation, and even the brain and cognitive functions. In the gut, microbes break down proteins, fats and carbohydrates, allowing us to digest food and absorb nutrients. They also produce beneficial compounds like vitamins and anti-inflammatory chemicals that regulate the immune system’s response to illness and infection.2 A healthy microbial population plays a key role in boosting protective antibodies which represent adaptive immunity, protecting us against pathogens and disease.
Although we acquire much of our microbiome early in life, diet, lifestyle and illness in adulthood plays a significant role in the quality and diversity of bacteria. Diversity is one of the key factors that influences the health of the microbiome, and the ultimate drivers of healthy biodiversity are diet and nutritional status! 3
Biodiversity is also influenced by where you live geographically, whether you are a vegetarian or omnivore, and whether you take probiotics or prebiotics, or a combination of both. It can also be influenced by stress, gut infections, pharmaceutical drugs and antibiotics.
The gut microbiome plays a central role in metabolic and immune health, as well as helping us extract nutrients from food. Diversity is a key marker of a healthy microbiome and is influenced foremost by diet and lifestyle and to a lesser extent by taking probiotics and prebiotics.
Biodiversity is also influenced by where you live geographically, whether you are a vegetarian or omnivore, and whether you take probiotics or prebiotics, or a combination of both. It can also be influenced by stress, gut infections, pharmaceutical drugs and antibiotics.4
The gut microbiome plays a central role in metabolic and immune health, as well as helping us extract nutrients from food. Diversity is a key marker of a healthy microbiome and is influenced foremost by diet and lifestyle and to a lesser extent by taking probiotics and prebiotics .
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are live microorganisms that have a direct effect on the health of the host when they are consumed. These helpful bacteria and yeasts modulate the balance and activity of your own microflora in transient or more long-lasting ways, depending on the species you take and the strength of the dosage. Probiotics may be also consumed naturally through the consumption of lacto-fermented probiotic foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi and beet kvass.
There are many different types of beneficial bacteria and yeasts, but here are 3 common ones:
- Lactobacillus is perhaps the most common class of bacteria found in a probiotic supplement. It is named after the lactic acid bacteria that ferment foods such as yoghurt and milk kefir. It may benefit those who have difficulty digesting the lactose in unfermented milk products.
- Bifidobacterium is found in some dairy products. Supplements containing bifidobacteria may help ease the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
- Saccharomyces boulardii is a probiotic yeast. It may be helpful for some digestive conditions, and candida overgrowth. As it is a yeast, it is not sensitive to antibiotic treatment, so can be helpful in post-antibiotic recovery to restore the microflora in the digestive tract. It is commonly found in kombucha, a probiotic tea.
Prebiotics are non-digestible food components that serve as fuel for beneficial gut bacteria, contributing significantly to a healthier gut and overall well-being. Here are some prominent benefits of prebiotics:
- Gut Health and Digestion: Prebiotics promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, enhancing gut health and contributing to improved digestion.
- Immune System Support: By promoting a balanced gut microbiota, prebiotics help strengthen the immune system, making you more resilient against harmful pathogens.
- Enhanced Nutrient Absorption: Prebiotics can improve the body’s ability to absorb essential nutrients, particularly calcium, promoting better bone density and overall health.
- Weight Management: Prebiotics can help regulate appetite and reduce body weight by promoting a sense of fullness and helping to balance gut hormones.
- Cardiovascular Health: Certain types of prebiotics have been linked to lowering cholesterol levels, contributing to better heart health.
- Mental Well-being: As the gut and brain are closely connected, a healthier gut environment facilitated by prebiotics can have a positive influence on mood and cognitive functions.
Adding prebiotics to your diet is a natural way to support your gut health. Choose prebiotic-rich foods or consider a prebiotic supplement after consulting with a healthcare provider.
However probiotics are not a magic bullet. Single-strain probiotics are unlikely to provide sufficient leverage to shift the balance of the microbiome, unless administered in trillions of CFUs.5 Furthermore that strategy can bring its own problems, as in rare cases large doses of isolated strains of bacteria may cause unwanted side effects. This is unlikely to be the case when one consumes lacto-fermented foods however, since these contain numerous strains of bacteria that work together in a natural balance, contributing to a healthy biodiversity of the native microflora.
Probiotics are supplements made from living microbes. They contribute to the host’s health by temporarily changing the balance of the host’s gut microbiome, theoretically crowding out bad bacteria in favour of beneficial bacteria. There are naturally occurring beneficial microbes in fermented foods.
What are prebiotics?
Prebiotics are ingredients fermented by the gut microflora that modulate changes in their composition and activity. They are made of indigestible carbohydrates: resistant starches, in/soluble fibre, non-starch polysaccharides and oligosaccharides– a chain of simple sugars found in plants, or fibre.
Prebiotics cannot be digested by the human host directly, but are completely or partially fermented in the large intestine, serving as an important energy source for the beneficial gut microbiota. Prebiotics are found naturally in foods such as whole grains, bananas, greens, onions, garlic, soya beans, legumes, asparagus, and artichokes. In addition, prebiotics are added to some commercial foods. Inulin is a common ingredient in commercial prebiotics– a complex sugar found naturally in plants including chicory.
Other common ingredients you’ll see on dietary supplements are frutooligosaccharides (FOS) and galactooligosaccharides (GOS).
Probiotics are live beneficial bacteria that are integral to our health, especially gut health. Here are some key advantages of including probiotics in your routine:
- Improved Digestive Health: Probiotics aid in breaking down food and absorbing nutrients effectively, reducing issues like bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation.
- Enhanced Immune Function: A substantial portion of our immune system resides in the gut. By improving gut health, probiotics can help boost your immune response.
- Better Nutrient Absorption: Probiotics can enhance the absorption of essential nutrients from the food we eat, such as vitamins and minerals.
- Mental Health Support: Emerging research suggests a link between gut health and mental well-being. Probiotics might play a role in managing mood disorders and reducing stress.
- Skin Health: Probiotics can help manage skin conditions like eczema and acne, thanks to their anti-inflammatory properties and their ability to manage gut health.
- Weight Management: Some probiotics may help with weight management by influencing metabolism and fat storage.
Remember, each type of probiotic may offer different benefits, so it’s essential to choose the one that meets your specific needs or consult a healthcare provider for advice.
Prebiotics are non-digestible sugars, starches and fibre fermented by the gut microflora as an important energy source. As well as featuring in dietary supplements, prebiotics occur naturally in many fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes.
Probiotics vs Prebiotics – what are the differences?
Probiotics are a way of getting more beneficial bacteria into your body, either by consuming fermented foods, or by taking a probiotic supplement. Prebiotics are a food or supplement made from non-digestible sugars or fibre that the bacteria ferment in order to grow and reproduce. Some researchers believe that the quality of the terrain on which bacteria live is more crucial to the survival of those bacteria than the bacteria themselves. Since the terrain is our gut lining it makes sense to nourish it with the right nutrition, which is why some probiotic supplements come with prebiotics ‘built in’.
What are the benefits of probiotics and prebiotics?
The beneficial effects of taking probiotics can be felt in improved bowel function, less bloating, improved energy, skin and digestive health, and many people find them supportive for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), allergies, and other chronic conditions.
As prebiotics are fermented by good bacteria, they produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) such as butyrate which can act as a natural anti-inflammatory chemical in the gut. SCFAs may also have a positive effect on appetite hormones and promote satiety.
Current research suggests that probiotics may also play a role in gut-brain health by producing feel-good neurotransmitters in the gut such as GABA, which reduce feelings of fear and anxiety. This could make them promising interventions in treatments for depression. By inhibiting the stress response, probiotics may be helpful in chronic bowel conditions such as IBS. They may also help to switch off or reduce an overactive immune system response that can be caused by toxins released by bad bacteria called lipopolysaccharides (LPS) that leak into the bloodstream. As they encourage the nerves in the bowel to relax, they can improve bowel transit and tone.
A probiotic supplement provides a single strain or several beneficial strains of bacteria to improve the digestive health of the host. A prebiotic supplement contains non-digestible sugars and/or fibre to feed the beneficial microflora. Alongside dietary interventions, prebiotics and probiotics may be a supportive treatment for chronic inflammatory conditions and disorders with a gut-brain connection, such as depression and anxiety .
What are symbiotics?
Firstly, for a healthy and thriving microbiome we need a wide diversity of microorganisms working in harmony. Secondly, the gastrointestinal tract needs to be healthy to make best use of the strains of bacteria it receives, otherwise the bacteria will not survive or reproduce.
A symbiotic is different from a probiotic and a prebiotic in that alongside multiple strains of beneficial bacteria, it comes with a complete environment to nourish the digestive terrain. This helps the bacteria within to thrive, much like probiotic foods do. A symbiotic is highly concentrated, food-based nourishment that naturally combines all the elements beneficial bacteria need to reproduce and unfold all their active compounds. As its name suggests, a symbiotic is designed to work in symbiosis with the digestive system, providing an array of phytonutrients, enzymes, peptides, polyphenols and other plant compounds that work together to optimise the beneficial bacteria’s anti-inflammatory and immune-regulating effects.
Living Nutrition’s Your Flora Symbiotics are based on a specially developed kefir-kombucha formulation that draws on traditional fermented medicines. By supplying the digestive environment with naturally fermented nutrition that the body can recognise and make full use of, Your Flora Symbiotics encourage healthy balance throughout the microbiome.
A symbiotic works differently from probiotics and prebiotics in that it is based on a highly concentrated, natural source of nutrition rather than isolated nutrients. A symbiotic works in harmony with your own microflora, supplying everything the bacteria needs to thrive and reproduce in the gastrointestinal tract.