What’s the difference between prebiotics and probiotics?

What’s the difference between prebiotics and probiotics?

You’ve probably heard that probiotics can be important for your health. But what about prebiotics?

The two terms are so similar that it can be hard to keep them straight, so let’s break it down.

Probiotics are live bacteria that are important to maintaining good gut health and a strong immune system.

Prebiotics are non-digestible fibers that are present in a wide variety of vegetables, fruits and whole grains. “They boost production of your good bacteria [the probiotics],” says Dr. Anshu Chawla, a gastroenterologist with Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, Ill. “As they move into the small intestine, they begin to ferment, which helps nourish your gut flora.”

Your gut flora is the community of microorganisms that lives mostly in your intestines and your colon.

“There’s a biome of good and bad bacteria that live in the gut, and when there’s an imbalance, it can affect not only your gut but your body’s overall health, as well,” Dr. Chawla says.

So it’s important to get a good balance of both probiotics and prebiotics because they work hand-in-hand.

The fermentation process that prebiotics go through in your gut fosters the growth of more beneficial bacteria colonies (probiotics) and helps them to outcompete bad bacteria.

You can also promote the probiotics in your gut by ingesting them directly through supplements or through naturally fermented foods such as Greek yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, miso soup, kombucha and kimchi. When it comes to using supplements, however, Dr. Chawla urges caution.

“There’s still a ton of research going into this,” he says, “so the jury is still out about what the right dose is. And since probiotics are a natural substance, there isn’t an FDA approval process.”

You can also add prebiotics through supplements (again with the same degree of caution). Or you can make sure your diet includes foods that contain complex carbohydrates. Some good examples of prebiotics are Jerusalem artichoke, garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, bananas, oatmeal and apples.

So, how do you know if you should start introducing more probiotics and probiotics into your diet? It’s something to ask a health professional.

If your gut is less than healthy, you may begin to experience increased sensitivity to certain foods along with a range of gastrointestinal issues like bloating, gas or diarrhea.

One cause of this is a condition known as Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), which results from a bacterial imbalance. SIBO can be diagnosed through a special test that detects the methane these bacteria produce in your breath. If it comes back positive, Dr. Chawla says, “we can treat it with antibiotics or by adding prebiotics or probiotics to restore the balance of the gut flora.”

Ironically, foods to avoid when you have gas and bloating include broccoli, cabbage, apples and certain other fruits and vegetables. But “when doctors are trying to encourage bacterial growth in the gut, a lot of the foods we recommend – oatmeal, whole grains, apples – also produce gas,” Dr. Chawla says.

So, if your gut flora is out of balance and you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, or even if you’re just curious about introducing probiotics and prebiotics into your diet, it’s always best talk to your doctor first.

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Phil Andres

Phil Andres, health enews contributor, is a copywriter for Advocate Aurora Health in Downers Grove. He’s also a classically trained chef, former trivia monkey and one of two males in a family of five (if you count the dog).