The Difference Between Probiotics and Prebiotics

Maintaining good gut health has become the talk of the town recently. Touted by everyone as the ‘end all, be all’ to good health. You’ve likely heard about probiotics and prebiotics, but do you really understand the difference and their role in keeping our bodies healthy? We’ll break down what they are, why you need them, and how to find them in your diet.

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What are probiotics?

Our bodies are made up of both unhealthy and healthy bacteria. Probiotics are living bacterial organisms that have health benefits. Some of the more common and familiar types of beneficial bacteria found in food include lactobacillus and bifidobacterium.

When consumed, probiotics add to the microbiome or bacteria community in the GI tract. Examples of probiotics include:

  • fermented foods
  • yogurt
  • kombucha (a fermented drink made with tea, sugar, bacteria, and yeast)
  • tempeh
  • sauerkraut
  • kefir

Probiotic Supplements

In addition to food sources, probiotic supplements are also available. Use caution when selecting nutritional supplements, as they are not regulated by any governmental agency like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The health benefits of probiotics are dose-dependent, meaning, you must consume at least a minimum amount to receive any health benefits. Appropriate supplements should have at least 1 million (106) colony-forming units, or CFUs, per dose. This information will be found on the supplement packaging.

Many living probiotics also require refrigeration or temperature control. Supplements that are exposed to high heat will often kill the probiotic bacteria and remove any potential health benefit.

Benefits of Probiotics

In addition to maintaining the balance of beneficial bacteria in the gut, probiotics can have several positive impacts on overall health. These include:

  • aiding the body in the digestion of food.
  • boosting the immune system to prevent illnesses.
  • assisting in breakdown and absorbing medications.
  • controlling excess inflammation in the body.

What are prebiotics?

Prebiotics are special plant fibers that, when consumed, “feed” the good bacteria in the gut. This is turn, helps improve digestion and promote regular bowel movements. Like probiotics, prebiotics are found in many of the foods we commonly eat including:

  • high fiber foods
  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • whole grains
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • beans
  • chicory
  • cocoa
  • flaxseed
  • garlic
  • onion

Benefits of Prebiotics

Many food sources of prebiotics are also good sources of dietary fiber. So, you’ll not only receive the benefits of prebiotics, but also the numerous benefits of a high-fiber diet. Dietary fiber helps to promote bowel regularity, feeling fuller longer, can help to lower cholesterol, help to regulate blood sugar, and promote heart health.

While you are adding more fiber- and prebiotic-rich foods to the diet, start small and slowly build your way up. Although rare, significantly increasing dietary fiber all at once can cause GI upset including bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and gas.

In Summary

When consumed together, probiotics and prebiotics can work together to confer several health benefits. Food sources of each are abundant, and supplements are available, too. If you are interested in improving your gut health or are experiencing GI issues, a registered dietitian can help.

Sarah Hammaker, RDN

Sarah Hammaker, RDN is a clinical dietitian working primarily in long-term care and acute rehabilitation hospital settings in Pennsylvania. Outside of work, Sarah enjoys spending time with her husband and their four children. She loves running and being outdoors. Her hobbies include reading, planting and shopping.

If you have more questions about probiotics and prebiotics, it’s always a great idea to speak with a registered dietitian. Registered dietitians are the only credentialed experts qualified to address your unique health questions. Click here to request a direct consultation with a dietitian today!


References:
Prebiotics and Probiotics: Creating a Healthier You. Available at https://www.eatright.org/food/vitamins-and-supplements/nutrient-rich-foods/prebiotics-and-probiotics-creating-a-healthier-you Accessed on April 26, 2022
What are Prebiotics and What Do They Do? Available at https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-are-prebiotics/ Accessed on April 26, 2022
Probiotics: What You Need to Know. Available at https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/probiotics-what-you-need-to-know Accessed on April 26, 2022
What’s the Difference Between Probiotics and Probiotics? Available at https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/14598-probiotics Accessed on April 29, 2022

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