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Prebiotic vs. Probiotic: What’s the Difference?

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Prebiotic vs. probiotic - Dr. Axe

Consuming both prebiotic and probiotic foods is key to promoting gut health and positively impacts many bodily functions, including your immune response and hormone balance. When looking at a prebiotic vs. probiotic, there are a few differences, but they both work together to improve health.

You’ve likely heard by now that probiotics are a worthy addition to your diet because they boost the beneficial bacteria in your gut. Prebiotics are important, too, because they help “feed” the probiotics and amplify their health-promoting properties.

Together, these bioactive components help protect the body from disease and support the integrity of the important microbiome.

Prebiotic vs. Probiotic

Prebiotics and probiotics are both important for maintaining a healthy digestive system, and while the terms are often used interchangeably, they aren’t actually the same.

Prebiotics are a type of dietary fiber that cannot be digested by the human body. Instead, they are fermented by the beneficial bacteria in the gut, which stimulates their growth and activity.

Some common sources of prebiotics include raw vegetables and greens, some fruits, and whole oats.

Probiotics, on the other hand, are living microorganisms that are consumed to improve the balance of bacteria in the gut. They can be found in foods, such as yogurt, kefir and sauerkraut, or taken as supplements.

How They Affect the Gut Microbiome

Together, prebiotics and probiotics work in synergy to improve the health of the gut microbiome, which is the collection of microorganisms that reside in the digestive tract.

Because prebiotics are dietary fibers that cannot be digested by humans, they are fermented by the beneficial bacteria in the gut. This fermentation process produces short-chain fatty acids, which help lower the pH in the colon and create an environment where beneficial bacteria can grow and thrive.

Prebiotics can also help increase the diversity of the gut microbiome by providing a food source for a wider range of bacteria.

Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that help restore the balance of the gut microbiome by reducing the population of harmful bacteria and promoting better bacteria balance. Probiotics have also been shown to support the immune system, improve nutrient absorption and reduce inflammation in the gut.

By consuming a diet rich in prebiotic fibers and incorporating probiotic-rich foods or supplements, individuals can support the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria in the gut and promote overall digestive health.

Probiotic Foods, Benefits, Side Effects

Probiotics are live bacteria that line the digestive tract and support your body’s ability to absorb nutrients and fight infections. They play a central role in maintaining a healthy digestive and immune system.

The top probiotic foods include:

  • Kefir
  • Sauerkraut
  • Yogurt
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Raw cheese
  • Miso
  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha
  • Tempeh
  • Salted gherkin pickles
  • Natto

The top probiotic benefits include the following:

  1. Improves digestive health: Probiotics improve digestion by balancing the microbiota with good bacteria that reduces inflammation and promotes regularity.
  2. Decreases antibiotic resistance: Probiotic consumption helps rebuild a poor variety of gut bacteria that is caused by taking antibiotics, and it may help prevent antibiotic-associated gut issues and resistance.
  3. Supports immunity: Research shows that probiotics and prebiotics have immune-boosting benefits and promote a healthy inflammatory response in the body.
  4. Boosts skin health: Studies suggest that gut integrity is connected to the development of acne, and taking probiotics may promote healthier, clearer skin.
  5. Supports mental health: Because of the gut-brain connection, research indicates that supplementing with probiotics may help alleviate symptoms of anxiety, stress or other mental health conditions.

While eating probiotic foods or taking a high-quality supplement is generally safe, probiotic side effects can sometimes include bloating, flatulence or diarrhea, especially if you eat too much. Bring probiotics into your diet slowly, and work your way up over time.

Prebiotic Foods, Benefits, Side Effects

Prebiotics are non-digestible fiber compounds that pass through the GI tract without being broken down, allowing them to be fermented by the gut microflora in the colon.

The top prebiotic foods and sources include:

  • Under-ripe bananas
  • Raw asparagus
  • Raw garlic
  • Raw dandelion greens
  • Raw leeks
  • Raw or cooked onion
  • Apples
  • Whole oats
  • Acacia gum (or gum arabic)

There are many potential health benefits of ingesting prebiotics, including the following:

  1. Improves digestion and gut health: Studies show that because prebiotics stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria that colonize the gut microbiota, they help balance harmful toxins and bacteria that live in the digestive tract. Improving the composition of the microbiota benefits digestion and reduces inflammation.
  2. Boosts immune function: Improving gut health also enhances immune function by blocking the growth of pathogens and harmful bacteria that can cause a range of inflammatory conditions.
  3. Reduces inflammation: Research shows that a healthier gut environment works to modulate immune functions, turning off autoimmune reactions that cause inflammation and helping the body metabolize nutrients more efficiently.
  4. Aids weight loss: Data suggests that there’s a connection between consuming prebiotics and weight loss because they promote feelings of fullness, improve appetite regulation and help prevent obesity.
  5. Regulates hormone levels and mood: Studies indicate that our mood and hormonal balance are affected by the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut. Because prebiotics help enhance the microbiota, consuming them can improve hormone levels and boost mood.

Consuming prebiotics is considered safe, but increasing your intake too quickly may lead to some side effects, including abdominal pain, gas, bloating and diarrhea. Start with a small amount to assess your tolerance, and gradually increase your intake. Also, be sure to drink plenty of water with prebiotics to prevent constipation.

How Prebiotics and Probiotics Interact

Prebiotics and probiotics work together in the gut to maintain a healthy balance of bacteria. Prebiotics provide the food, or fuel, that probiotics need to thrive, and probiotics help regulate the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria in the gut.

This interaction supports the microbiome by allowing for positive changes to the composition and activity of the gastrointestinal system. Keep in mind, also, that the health of the gut is closely tied to many other body functions, including immune system health and the body’s inflammatory response.

Conclusion

  • Prebiotics and probiotics are both important for maintaining a healthy digestive system. It’s not about comparing probiotics vs. prebiotics, but understanding that both compounds work together to promote human health.
  • Prebiotics are a type of dietary fiber that cannot be digested by the human body, so they are fermented by the beneficial bacteria in the gut, which stimulates their growth and activity. Some common sources of prebiotics include raw greens, onion and garlic.
  • Probiotics are living microorganisms that are consumed to improve the balance of bacteria in the gut. They can be found in foods, such as yogurt, kefir and sauerkraut, or taken as supplements.
  • Prebiotics provide the food, or fuel, that probiotics need to thrive, and probiotics help regulate the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria in the gut.

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