What are the differences between probiotics, prebiotics and symbiotics?

Make a visit to any health store and you’re likely to be confronted with a whole array of probiotics and prebiotics supplements of different strengths and strains. But what exactly are probiotics and prebiotics and why should you take them? What exactly does bacteria do in the gut?

In this post we will set out exactly what probiotics and prebiotics do for your health and whether they can help you.

But before we get on to probiotics, let’s take a brief look at what bacteria do in the body and why it’s so important to look after them.

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

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.

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.

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).

What is the difference between probiotics and prebiotics?

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.

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.

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