What Are Prebiotics and Probiotics & How Are They Different From Each Other

What Are Prebiotics and Probiotics & How Are They Different From Each Other

You need to know one thing. What you eat is what you are. To put in a correct sense, you are what you are feeding the trillions of the tiny critters that are living in your gut. Do you know your gut has microorganisms living in it?

The lining of your gut is like each of the surfaces of your body. It is covered with microscopic creatures which are mainly bacteria. Such kind of organism creates a micro-system called the microbiome. Of course, we never notice it, but still, it plays a great role in your health. Plus, it can even affect your behaviour and mood.

Surprisingly, what you are feeding your microbiome will have a huge impact on its health. The healthier it is, the healthier you become. Here the key factor is that a healthy microbiome is good, or you can say necessary for your body. It helps in nourishing a balance among 1,000 of various species of bacteria present in your gut.

Frankly, there are two methods of maintaining this balance. One is assisting the microbes that are already growing by providing the food they like (which is prebiotic) and another method is adding living microbes directly into the system (this is probiotic).

What Are Prebiotics?

Prebiotics are natural and specialized plant fibres. They are like fertilizers and help in stimulating the growth of healthy bacteria living in the gut. You can find prebiotics in various vegetables and fruits, especially in those that have complex carbohydrates like resistant starch and fibre.

One thing you really need to know is that these carbs are not digestible by the human body. They would end up passing through the digestive system. Here, it will become food for the bacteria as well as other microbes. Now the list of the prebiotic food is long and it ranges from yams to asparagus. Doing a quick internet search will display dozens of examples and you can even consult with registered dietitians.

Currently, the list of prebiotics supplements is huge, and they would have complex carbohydrates like fibre. Various supplement firms are marketing products for specific conditions like weight management and bone health. They claim that these ingredients will help in enhancing the growth of specific bacteria.

What Are Probiotics?

Compared to prebiotics, probiotics are different as they contain live organisms. These are just specific kind of or strain of bacteria that is directly added to the population of the healthy microbes present in your gut. Like the prebiotics, you can take the probiotics through supplements as well as food. The most common probiotics are yogurt.

We all know that yogurt is made by fermenting milk using various bacteria. These lead to becoming the final product. Besides, other bacteria-fermented foodstuffs like kombucha, sauerkraut, and kimchi are the best sources of probiotics.

Do you know probiotics supplements have live organisms? Frankly, a single dose of it will have a good strain of microbe. Also, it will even have a blend of microbes too. Like the prebiotic supplements, the probiotics supplement companies try to market their products for certain conditions like irritable bowel syndrome.

What Are the Benefits of Gut Bacteria?

The presence of good bacteria in the digestive tract will secure you from harmful fungi and bacteria. They would even send signals to your immune system and assist in regulating inflammation. Furthermore, certain gut bacteria are present in vitamin K and short-chain fatty acids.

The short-chain fatty acids are the major nutrient source for the cells that are lining the colon. Not only do they help in promoting a strong gut barrier, but they help in keeping out the harmful and dangerous substances, bacteria, and viruses. They even help in lowering the inflammation and lowers the chances of getting cancer.

Which Food Are Considered to Be Prebiotics?

Now before you go out and purchase any kind of prebiotic supplements, just keep in mind one thing. Many natural food items contain them. The reason for this is because all kinds of fibre are found in vegetables, legumes, and fruits. Such kind of fibres are not digestible by the human body; however, it is easy for your bacteria to digest them.

Food Items Containing Prebiotics

Following are the foodstuff having a high amount of prebiotic fibre in them-

  • Bananas
  • Oats
  • Beans, legumes, and peas
  • Berries
  • Asparagus
  • Jerusalem artichokes (not the regular artichokes)
  • Garlic
  • Dandelion greens
  • Leeks
  • Onions

Which Food Stuff Are Probiotic?

Frankly, you might be surprised to know that various probiotic foodstuffs naturally have helpful bacteria like yogurt. If you check, a high-quality and plain yogurt having live cultures will be a great addition to your diet. That too if you are planning on adding some beneficial bacteria.

Of course, fermented food items are one of the best options. They will be filled with beneficial bacteria that thrive on naturally occurring fibre or sugar present in food items.

Examples of Fermented Foods

Some of the major types of fermented foodstuffs are –

  • Kimchi
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kefir (non-dairy and diary-
  • Kombucha tea
  • Certain kinds of pickles (these are non-pasteurized)
  • Certain other major types of pickled vegetables (non-pasteurized)

If you are really planning on consuming fermented food due to their probiotic benefits, then try to make sure that they are not pasteurized. This process would kill the whole bacteria. Certain food items can be considered as symbiotic. Well, this is since they have both prebiotic sources of fibre to feed on for the bacteria and beneficial bacteria. A perfect example would be sauerkraut.

Difference Between Prebiotics and Probiotics?

In our human body, there are trillions of bacteria as well as microorganisms that live in the lining of the digestive tract. They simply play a great role in our health. Unlike other nutrients, probiotics are the best part of the complex system.

They are the good bacteria that are living in our guts. Also, they help in promoting healthy digestion and provide the immune system a good boost. Well, naturally our digestive tract can produce probiotics, it is quite beneficial to consume more natural food that is rich in probiotics. These will assist in increasing one’s level and variety of strains of good bacteria.

Various studies and research show that probiotics assist in creating a balance of microorganisms in the digestive tract. They even help in repopulating the beneficial bacteria and that too after taking antibiotics.

On the other hand, prebiotics is just another kind of carbohydrate present in fibre-rich vegetables and fruits. They are non-digestible to the human body. Rather, they pass through the gut. Also, they provide an excellent food source to the healthy bacteria (i.e. probiotics) and even help them to thrive. Medical experts state that all prebiotics are fibre however, all fibres are not prebiotics.

Sudden Interest for Gut Microbiome in Past Decade

To be frank, in the mid-1970s and 1980s, Yale laboratories and various other anaerobic intestinal bacteriologists had expressed their interest in microecology, especially of the intestinal tract. Even researchers felt that there would be a functional metabolism in the relationship among intestinal liquids and bacteria that have come inside the tract.

For the past few years, the National Institution of Health has somehow realized the necessity of the microbiota and how they can outnumber the number of cells present in the human body. The gut microecology will contain the microbiota and the necessary nutrients for feeding such organisms. These consist of probiotics, fibre, and prebiotics.

No doubt the microecology is very much active and dynamic. It is easy to change the microbiota by feeding them various kinds of dietary fibre and prebiotics. For example, if an individual simply consumes up a huge amount of prebiotic insulin, then the fructan polysaccharide, the person will stimulate the growth and development of certain bifidobacteria. These bacteria are necessary for the intestinal health and it has a huge effect on bowel movements like constipation. Therefore, through the consumption of certain foods items like prebiotics one, the growth of the beneficial bacteria will affect the function of the gut that can be stimulated.

Do You Think Yogurt Is A Good Probiotic?

Various medical studies show that bifidobacteria are present in certain yogurts. However, there are less or a few anecdotal studies to prove the role of yogurt as a good dietary product. A little history class will show you that ancient Chinese and Indians consumed a lot of yogurts and it was their favourite diet. And they did prove that it provided a huge health benefit. There are not any proper studies to show the value of yogurt in Western society.

Some might consider yogurt to be probiotic, still, it is a food item that has probiotics. Here the amount, as well as the type of organism or strains of organisms present in the commercial yogurt, will differ. Certain firms have put in a huge effort for creating highly active and good probiotic yogurt products.

However, the US Food and Drug Administration considers these probiotic food items to be genuinely safe, there are limited resources that just puts forwards the research regarding its true health. Even there is not enough research to point out the therapeutic benefits or how such products can be termed as a good probiotic.

How to Know Whether Your Gut Is Fine?

Various signs show if your gut has enough amounts of probiotics and prebiotics. People suffering from the gut imbalance will have various symptoms like an increase in gut sensitivity or changes in bowel habits. This simply means that you might be suffering from issues like constipation, diarrhoea, and an excess amount of gas.

More importantly, it is not necessary that you need to wait for these unpleasant symptoms to crop up for taking probiotics. Irrespective of whether you are doing it by supplement or diet, probiotics and prebiotics can be easily used by any individual for proactively maintaining good gut health.

For example, medical experts recommend that one eat a tablespoon of Greek yogurt (this contains probiotics) and sprinkle it with Metamucil (that contains prebiotics) for restoring the balance in the gut.

Sometimes certain people might not get enough amount of probiotics from their daily diet and depend on the supplement. These consist of consuming foodstuffs like yogurt (the label must state whether it is ‘live active cultures’ or the whole name of the bacteria, soft cheese like Gouda, soy drink, and miso.

Of course, there might be situations where fewer probiotics would be present in our digestive system. The most common one is when some people take antibiotics. What happens is that these antibiotics will destroy the healthy bacteria present in our gut especially the ones serving as probiotics, when the harmful bacteria are killed that cause the infection. Hence, this is the major reason why doctors prescribe antibiotics only if they are sure that the patient has an infection that is due to the bacteria rather than the virus like a common cold.

Naturally, in such instances, you would have to take probiotic supplement and that too until you complete taking the antibiotics. Just make sure that you consult with your doctor so that you are taking the correct strain. Also, it is good to be aware that you are taking probiotics supplements and sometimes these might come with certain side effects like bloating and gas.

Most medical doctors and dieticians recommend that a diet that is high in plant-based food, as well as fibre, is a great method of making sure that you eat a lot. These sources of proteins are vegetables, garlic, legumes, and fruits.

Wrapping Up

Prebiotics and probiotics are necessary for our human body. There are major food sources for the bacteria (good ones) present in our body. Even if we are not able to get them from natural sources, one can go for supplements after consulting with their doctors. The best way is to check with your physician or family doctor before going on the best diet. Take care of your gut to have lesser issues with your health.


Saravavan Nadarajan (Vanan)

Vanan, fitness expert and leader at EzFit Singapore, specializes in holistic training—home-based, boot camps, and corporate fitness—with over a decade of industry experience.