Probiotics and Prebiotics: What’s the Difference?

Evidence Based Article 📄
This article has been based on relevant and up-to-date scientific studies. Our writers are unbiased and objective and present the facts as they are known. Numbers in brackets within the article refer to sources included in the reference list at the end of the article.

Probiotics and prebiotics are often mistakenly believed to have one meaning. In reality, these are entirely different and have different roles in maintaining your gut health.

Both probiotics and prebiotics provide support to the body in creating and keeping a colony of good bacteria and microorganisms that maintain good gut health and ensure healthy digestion.

In other words, probiotics and prebiotics build an environment where good bacteria can flourish. Read on to find out more about probiotics and prebiotics and the difference between these components.

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What are probiotics?

Probiotics are yeasts and live bacteria, which are beneficial to the digestive system and overall health.

The body is overflowing with bacteria, but not all bacteria are bad. Probiotics are referred to as good bacteria as they aid in maintaining a healthy gut.

Probiotics are found in foods including yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, Kombucha tea, and non-pasteurized pickled veggies. You can also find probiotics in supplements. Probiotics are essential for balancing bad and good bacteria and thus keeping your gut healthy.

Probiotics are also vital while taking antibiotics which can destroy good bacteria. Probiotics take an active role in replacing them.

Even though most bacteria types are usually classified as probiotics, the majority of them are from two different groups (1):

  • Fermented foods are the best source of probiotic strains of Lactobacillus, which have been shown to help with digestive issues, including diarrhea. (2) People with lactose intolerance should consume more Lactobacillus for good gut health.
  • Bifidobacteria have positive health benefits. (3) They help to relieve the symptoms of disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Bifidobacteria are found in some dairy and fermented foods.

There’s also a yeast called Saccharomyces boulardii, which can be found in probiotics. This probiotic is known for warding off and treating a number of gastrointestinal disorders. (4)

What are the benefits of probiotics?

Probiotics boast a myriad of health benefits and they’re not only good for your gut health. Here are a few of the most powerful benefits probiotics offer:

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Alleviate some common conditions related to gut health

Probiotics aid in sending food through the gut by influencing the nerves that regulate gut movement.

Therefore, probiotics can help to treat or prevent common conditions and disorders like diarrhea triggered by parasites, antibiotics, bacteria, and viruses, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), among others.

Boost your overall health

Probiotics are useful if you have skin problems, including acne and eczema. Even if you have clear skin, probiotic consumption will significantly enhance its look.

Probiotics are also recommended to improve oral health, ward off allergies, and reduce the risk of urinary problems.

Probiotics are good for women’s health

Probiotics aid in preventing bacterial vaginosis, urogenital infections, and vaginal yeast infections by balancing the vaginal microbiome. Taking Lactobacillus fermentum and Lactobacillus rhamnosus strains each day has also been shown to positively impact vaginal flora.

Strengthen your immune system

According to a scientific review, probiotics can help to strengthen the immune system and reduce the growth of bad gut bacteria. (5)

Moreover, probiotics help to protect against various infections, lowering the likelihood of respiratory illnesses.

Fight depression

Another scientific review revealed that probiotics can improve mental health and ease the symptoms of depression. (6) More research is required to prove this fact, though.

Are probiotic supplements safe?

There are many probiotic supplements available on the market these days, but not all of them are safe. Plus, not all people can benefit from taking probiotics.

For instance, people with Crohn’s disease aren’t advised to take probiotic supplements. Always consult your doctor before taking probiotic supplements. It’s always better to eat foods that are rich in probiotics instead.

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What are prebiotics?

Prebiotics are substances, typically special plant fibers, which help beneficial bacteria thrive in the gut.

The body can’t digest these substances and thus they serve as food for good bacteria and many other beneficial organisms found in the gut. Prebiotics work best with probiotics. Otherwise, if you have probiotics (the bacteria) without taking prebiotics (the food source), you might have difficulty maintaining beneficial microorganisms in the gut.  This could result in different health problems.

Few studies have been done on prebiotics when compared to probiotic scientific reviews. Yet, some researchers have suggested that prebiotics help to improve digestion, speed up metabolic rate, promote the probiotic growth of gut bacteria, and enhance calcium absorption. There is also random evidence that prebiotics can alter the way the body processes carbs.

What are the sources of prebiotics?

Since prebiotics naturally occur in a variety of foods, you don’t need to take any prebiotic supplements. There are fortified and natural prebiotics and both can positively affect your overall health. As always, moderation is essential.

Some of the best sources of natural prebiotics are greens, including dandelion greens, garlic, chicory root, asparagus, artichokes, leeks, tomatoes, onions, soybeans, beans, peas, oats, barley, wheat, berries, apples, banana, cocoa, flaxseeds, yacon root, and seaweed, among others. Prebiotics are also found in breast milk and dietary supplements.

Fortified prebiotics can be found in yogurt, cereals, bread, and baby formula. You won’t find the word “prebiotics” on the labels. Inulin, chicory fiber, oligofructose, fructooligosaccharides, and galactooligosaccharides are terms that mean this food item contains prebiotics.

If you’re gluten intolerant, consider adding buckwheat, millet, quinoa, and amaranth to your eating plan. These foods don’t feed pathogenic yeast and can function like prebiotics.

How do prebiotics work?

Prebiotics travel to the lower digestive tract and function as fertilizers, helping the beneficial bacteria thrive. Without enough prebiotics in the gut, healthy bacteria won’t grow properly. Despite all the benefits, excess prebiotics can trigger certain health problems, such as bloating and gas.

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Many dietitians and medical experts recommend consuming 5 grams of prebiotics per day, but your daily dose can differ from the recommended one, so make sure you consult your doctor. Try to get your prebiotics from natural sources.

What are the benefits of prebiotics?

Prebiotics and probiotics seem to have similar health benefits, but there’s a difference here, too. The most powerful benefits of prebiotics include:

Keep your gut healthy

As mentioned above, both prebiotics and probiotics are vital for a healthy gut. Prebiotics can aid in lowering the risk of IBS, candida virus, leaky gut syndrome, and many other intestinal problems.

Maintain healthy blood pressure

Although prebiotics don’t have the ability to decrease high blood pressure, they play a significant role in controlling electrolyte and mineral levels. Since electrolytes and minerals are related to blood pressure, high blood pressure starts to reduce.

Fight cancer

A study showed that prebiotics can help to combat cancer cells and free radicals in the body, warding off cancer. (7)

The increased levels of toxins in the body can contribute to colon cancer development. Of course, prebiotics can’t heal cancer, but they can at least suppress the growth of cancer cells and tumors.

Prebiotics and probiotics promote better nutrient absorption and aid in building hormone chemicals. This helps to enhance mental and physical health alike.

Moreover, prebiotics and probiotics ensure healthy bowel movements, lowering the risks of infections and allergies. It’s important to consume foods which are naturally rich in probiotics and prebiotics to reap maximum health benefits.