Probiotics vs. prebiotics: what’s the difference? In recent years, it seems like everybody is talking about probiotics. Whether in the form of supplements, yogurt, kombucha or sauerkraut; many people have “gotten the memo” about gut health, and are actively trying to improve their gut microbiome.
So what are probiotics, anyway? And what about their long-forgotten counterparts, prebiotics? Do we need them, too? If so, how much, and how frequently do we need to take them? Where is the best place to get them?
Terms like “probiotics,” “prebiotics,” and the “microbiome,” might seem like a foreign language, and rightly so. After all, Western scientists only “discovered” the microbiome in the 1990’s, and it hasn’t taken the wellness industry long to begin pushing probiotic supplements in every way imaginable.
This article breaks down probiotics vs. prebiotics–– including everything you need to know about them; the microbiome, and how collectively, they may factor into your overall health.
The Microbiome; Simplified
Although we might tend to think of our bodies in a reductionist, mechanical way (muscles, bones, nerves, blood vessels, and organs…) the truth is, we’re more complex than that.
In fact, scientists have realized that the average human body contains far more microorganisms than it does human cells–– at a surprising ratio of 10 to 1.
These microorganisms live in every crevice of our bodies; from our skin to our organs, our mouth to our feet, and everywhere in-between. While many of these microorganisms (AKA microbes) are harmless or beneficial, we also carry disease-causing pathogens, too. The interesting thing is that even though we carry them, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will lead to illness or disease. Some simply join our microbiome and stay for a while, seemingly without causing any trouble. This discovery is potentially shifting the way we understand disease, but that’s for another article…
Understanding the nature of the microbiome is kind of like understanding the nature of quantum physics. If we zoom in to look at the tiniest particles, we’ll see that what we thought was solid is not solid at all. We are made up of trillions of microbes that are constantly moving in and around the human body–– including bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses. Collectively, this ecosystem is called our microbiome.
Probiotics vs. Prebiotics; Why We Need Them
When it comes to probiotics and prebiotics, many people ask–– do we really need them? How come our grandparents never had to take probiotic supplements?
Or did they?
Sit down with a great-grandparent and ask them what they ate as a child. When I asked my Polish grandmother, for instance, what she ate when she was younger, she told me, “Some winters, all we ate was boiled potatoes and sauerkraut.”
If you take a closer look at most traditional cultures around the world, chances are, you’ll find fermentation practices that produce natural probiotics. Often, these foods and beverages such as kimchi, kraut, kombucha, kvass, naturally-fermented pickles, and raw dairy, are consumed in small amounts with every meal.
During the industrial revolution, many people switched from home-made food to store-bought food. When food is mass-produced and packaged, it requires pasteurization to maintain quality control and protect against spoilage. This process kills beneficial bacteria (probiotics) as well as harmful bacteria.
So whereas our dairy products used to be served raw and our pickled products naturally fermented, they are now pasteurized and vinegared–– ridding them of beneficial bacteria.
Not only do we eat less probiotic-rich foods, but we also eat a processed, high-sugar, high-refined-carb diet, which is known to disturb the microbiome by creating favorable conditions for yeast and inflammation-causing bacteria.
It’s important to note that certain modern medical practices have also played a role in poor gut health. While many antibiotics are life-saving, a 2016 report from the CDC (Center for Disease Control) found 1 out of 3 administered antibiotics to be unnecessary. Antibiotics can sterilize gut bacteria both good and bad, and if taken too frequently and/or unnecessarily, can further exacerbate gut health issues.
While research is still underway, scientists are linking poor gut health with everything from mental illnesses to chronic diseases. Below are just a few.
Illnesses linked with poor gut health:
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
For these reasons, it’s important to consider cultivating gut health. Keep reading to learn more about probiotics vs. prebiotics, and how collectively, they can aid in this crucial aspect of health.
So now that we have a general understanding of the gut microbiome, how do probiotics play into it?
“Probiotic” means beneficial bacteria.
As we read above, the microbiome is made up of both beneficial bacteria and less-than-beneficial bacteria, including viruses. When we intentionally introduce probiotics to our bodies, it can help to re-cultivate our gut with beneficial bacteria. The theory is that the more diverse beneficial bacteria there are thriving in our body, the healthier we are, and the better chance we have at keeping illnesses at bay.
obiotics can be both naturally-forming and also processed in the form of store-bought probiotic supplements. Probiotic supplements can vary in price and quality, so it is important to do your research carefully and keep the following guidelines in mind.
What to know about probiotic supplements:
- Diversity is better than quantity. Aim to consume many different strands of beneficial bacteria, rather than massive quantities of the same bacteria.
- Diversify the brands of probiotics or probiotic-rich foods you’re consuming.
- Diversify the way you take probiotics as well. Take breaks, and cycle them out frequently.
- Not all probiotics are made the same. The probiotic industry is largely unregulated.
As mentioned earlier, natural probiotic foods have historically been a part of almost every traditional culture. Popular types include sauerkraut, kimchi, Japanese pickles (tsukemono), tempeh, natto, kombucha, kvass, raw dairy, raw cheeses, kefir, homemade wines and beers, naturally fermented pickles, and more.
Whether you learn how to make them yourself or connect with a local producer, naturally fermented foods can contain a diverse array of beneficial bacteria, and be a less-expensive alternative to probiotic supplements.
What to know about probiotic foods:
- Consider eating some every day. (Many traditional cultures incorporate a pinch at every meal).
- Diversify your intake. For instance, don’t only rely on kombucha, or yogurt.
- Most store-bought pickles are soaked in vinegar (rather than being naturally fermented), and therefore do not contain beneficial bacteria.
- Not all yogurt is made the same. Most are heat-treated, which kills off beneficial bacteria.
- Avoid sugar and other additives in probiotic-rich foods (like yogurt and kombucha), as they can negate the health benefits of probiotics.
- Consume probiotic foods chilled or at room temperature, as heat destroys the beneficial bacteria (Yes, even sauerkraut, kimchi…)
After getting a handle on subjects as complicated as the microbiome and probiotics, it can be overwhelming to consider the other component gut health: prebiotics.
The good news is that prebiotics are actually a pretty straightforward concept. Simply put, prebiotics are the fiber that nourishes and supports the thriving of beneficial bacteria. We need prebiotics before we can effectively take in probiotics.
While our understanding of prebiotics has evolved over the years, our most recent understanding calls for a comprehensive definition:
“A nondigestible compound that, through its metabolization by microorganisms in the gut, modulates composition and/or activity of the gut microbiota, thus conferring a beneficial physiologic effect on the host.” (Bindels, 2015).
So, the term “prebiotics” includes fiber, as well as the metabolic processes associated with it. This fiber is present in many plant sources. It contains short-chain fatty acids which improve the gut barrier and nourish the microbiome. Interestingly enough, the fiber in prebiotics is indigestible to humans but perfectly digestible for probiotics. This indicates a complex, symbiotic relationship, which we are just beginning to understand.
As with probiotics, prebiotics are naturally present in food, but modern diets can create deficiencies. With that said, eating a balanced diet rich in vegetables, fruit, and whole grains can provide you with sufficient prebiotics.
Sources of prebiotics:
- Root vegetables; chicory root, yams, potatoes (with skin), and burdock
- Fibrous leafy greens and dandelion greens
- Whole and sprouted grains; oats, barley, and wheat berries
- Alliums; garlic, leeks, and onions
- Fruit; bananas, coconuts, and apples
- Seeds; flaxseeds, and pumpkin seeds
While all of this probiotics vs. prebiotics talk might seem complicated, a little “gut instinct” can help us move from that reductionist view to a more realistic, integrated understanding of our bodies, health, and well-being.
Nature, by itself, is diverse and constantly flourishing with microbes. Ideally, our bodies are too. We get these microbes by eating things that are close to nature–– such as plants, and some minimally-processed animal products. If we eat a diverse array of minimally-processed plants and follow traditional practices around fermentation, chances are, our gut microbiome will be healthy and strong. However, if we eat a diet rich in plant and animal parts that have been processed, refined, and added with sugar, salt, saturated fat and artificial ingredients, chances are our gut microbiome might suffer.
To assist in the restoration of our gut health, many people have turned to probiotic supplements. If we continue to eat a processed diet while taking probiotic supplements, our bodies might not have the proper amount of prebiotics to support a thriving population of probiotics.
While the microbiome is certainly a fascinating frontier of research, it is important to keep in mind, again, that Western scientists have only begun to deepen this research in the last 40 years. So it can be helpful to approach the subject with curiosity and keep in mind what we currently know is only the tip of the iceberg.
With that said, most forward-thinking medical professionals recognize a strong link between gut bacteria and good health. For this reason, prebiotics, probiotics, and the gut microbiome are considered to be an increasingly important aspect of modern health.
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