Most people have heard of both prebiotics and probiotics, and know that they relate to gut health, but very few people actually know the difference between the two!
So, we thought we’d set it out for you here, so that you can decide which one (or both!) is appropriate for YOU!
The gut lining has loads of teeny tiny bacteria. This is a good thing. Collectively, they form what is known as the microbiome, a whole ecosystem of organisms that, when healthy and balanced, contribute to your overall gut and mental health in a very big way!
“Good” bacteria do so much more than just supporting digestion. They are also involved in our mood, metabolism, weight management and immunity, while making sure that the more harmful bacteria are kept in check.
Balance is key in the gut. Balance between so-called good bacteria (the two main types are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium) and bad bacteria ensures a healthy body, and we get sick when that balance is disturbed. Both probiotics and prebiotics have a role to play in maintaining this balance. Here is how they are different.
Probiotics vs Prebiotics
- Probiotics are the actual live (good) bacteria, so live organisms (specific strains of bacteria) living in your gut that help your intestines break down food. They occur in your gut naturally, and when you supplement with probiotics, you are literally adding live organisms to your gut to supplement the good bacteria already in your gut!
- Prebiotics on the other hand are carbohydrates (typically fibres) that our bodies cannot digest. This is a good thing: humans cannot digest these fibres, but good gut bacteria (probiotics) can digest them. Prebiotics therefore serve as food for probiotics and to keep them thriving. Prebiotics are therefore not unlike fertilizer for probiotics!
Because prebiotic fibres are non-digestible, they pass through your small intestine undigested, then ferment in your large intestine and colon into short-chain fatty acids which provide nutrients to feed bacteria, thereby making your gut microbiome more diverse (a good thing). This is not only protective against colon cancer, but prebiotics also have the following potential advantages:
Assist with absorbing minerals such as calcium reduction of dangerous bacteria
Weight loss or maintenance as they can physically help you feel more full
Prebiotics tend to be sturdier than probiotics because they’re not destroyed during digestion. Probiotics on the other hand often die off when they come into contact with your stomach acid or aren’t refrigerated. This is a big reason why I’m such a fan of PrimeSelf’s Gut Complex, which contains specific probiotics which are resistant to heat, stomach acids and antibiotics, making it an incredibly powerful probiotic.
Now that we know that probiotics and prebiotics are, let’s look at why it’s so important to pay attention to the probiotics and whether they are well fed by prebiotics.
The Importance of a Healthy Gut
Studies show that having a wide variety and diversity of good bacteria is incredibly beneficial to our health, particularly as it relates to the immune system, mood, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, weight management and just overall feeling GOOD!
Knowing how important a healthy gut is, let’s consider some good sources of both probiotics and prebiotics.
Sources of Probiotics and Prebiotics
Probiotics are found abundantly in fermented foods such as yoghurt, kombucha, tempeh and sauerkraut. Whole foods like gherkins are also an excellent source of probiotics.
Prebiotics are found naturally in a number of foods, especially leeks, asparagus, apples, artichokes, bananas, garlic, onions, some whole grains and oats. You can also supplement with prebiotics, but it is very important to note that for some people, adding extra prebiotics in addition to what is derived from your food may cause more harm than good, such as worsening symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Prebiotics are not recommended for people who suffer from Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), so if you know that you suffer from SIBO, you should be weary of prebiotics.
Both probiotics and prebiotics can also be purchased as supplements. This is not a bad idea given how much of the above foods you would have to consume to get adequate probiotics and prebiotics, but it is very important that you carefully source your supplements and make sure that you are getting what you paid for, i.e. a stable product of pure sourcing that will deliver what it promises!
Probiotics, Prebiotics or Both?
When probiotics are taken with prebiotics, it’s called symbiotic, due to the complementary properties of using both together. Probiotics are extremely important for good gut health, but they need to feed on prebiotics to live their best lives. Similarly, prebiotics on their own haven’t been shown to be particularly helpful unless they can serve as food for probiotics.
The general consensus, therefore, is that a combination of supplementing with both is your best strategy!
The Bottom Line
A good diet void of vegetable oils and processed packaged foods and full of whole organic foods goes a long way towards ensuring a healthy gut. The problem is, you’d have to eat kilograms of these carbohydrates or vegetables like asparagus to get nearly enough of the good stuff that prebiotics have to offer, or way more kimchi than anyone wants to eat to supplement your probiotics. It is therefore always a good idea to consider supplementing with both prebiotics and probiotics!
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- Thea is the founder of Neolaia — Biohacking SA and passionate about all things biohacking, functional medicine, holistic and ancestral wellness. She enjoys the occasional triathlon, is fanatic about yoga and the gym and loves n=1 biohacking experiments more than anything else! Learning about the latest in scientific research for health and wellness and applying this knowledge is what makes her happiest!
- Instagram: biohack_sa
This information does not serve as medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is for informational purposes only and does not provide a comprehensive explanation of the different compounds. Always consult your doctor first when making any changes to medication or supplementation.