What's the difference between probiotics and prebiotics?

You may have heard the terms prebiotics and probiotics but what do they really mean and what role do they both play in keeping you healthy? 

Probiotics

Probiotics are live bacteria that are naturally found in food. When you eat probiotics they make their way down into your gut, where there is literally an ecosystem of bacteria working to help your body. In fact, you have more bacterial cells in your gut, than human cells in your whole body!

This delicate ecosystem of bacteria is called your gut flora or gut microbiome. In an ideal situation, your gut microbiome should be made up of a wide variety of good bacteria because they all play different roles in keeping you healthy. Eating plenty of plant foods will help ensure you have enough good bacteria.

Fermented foods are a particularly good source of probiotics. This includes food such as yoghurt (with live cultures), kefir, kimchi, miso and sauerkraut. Probiotics can also be taken as supplements that can come in the form of dried powders and capsules.

But after you consume probiotics, what happens to them from there? The good bacteria need to be nurtured and fed to stay alive, multiply and help keep your gut healthy – and that’s where prebiotics come in.

Prebiotics

Prebiotics are fibres that feed the healthy gut bacteria and are important in maintaining a balanced gut. They lay the groundwork for the probiotics to flourish. If probiotics were the flowers in a garden, prebiotics would be the soil those flowers thrive in.

Prebiotics include fibre-rich foods like whole grains, beans and legumes, fruits and vegetables. Inulin is a prebiotic and a type of soluble fibre. It is found naturally in high amounts in chicory root, as well in smaller amounts in foods like Jerusalem artichokes, onions and a type of Mexican turnip called jicama.

Inulin is added to some food products because it improves gut health without changing the taste or texture of the food.

It’s important to nourish the good bacteria in your gut with plenty of prebiotics. They are broken down by the good bacteria into short chain fatty acids (SCFAs). The SCFAs help to keep the lining of the gut healthy which has been linked with reduced inflammation, increased absorption of nutrients from your food, improved immunity, better mood and can protect against bowel cancer.

For a healthy, happy gut try to include both probiotics and prebiotics in your diet every day. It can make a big difference to your gut almost immediately with research showing changing your diet can improve your gut health in just days.

References

Aune, D, et al (2011), “Dietary fiber, whole grains, and risk of colorectal cancer: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies,” British Medical Journal, Vol 343, d6617; World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research (2007), Food, nutrition, physical activity and the prevention of cancer: a global perspective, AICR; Salmeron, J, et al (1997), “Dietary Fiber, Glycemic Load, and Risk of NIDDM in Men,” Diabetes Care, Vol 20 No 4, pages 545–50.

Aune, et al (2011), op cit; Bingham, S A, et al (2003), “Dietary fiber in food and protection against colorectal cancer in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC): an observational study,” Lancet, Vol 361, pages 1496–501; Ferlay, J, et al (2010), “Estimates of worldwide burden of cancer in 2008: GLOBOCAN 2008,” International Journal of Cancer, Vol 127, pages 2893–917.  

Cani, P D, et al (2007), “Selective increases of bifidobacteria in gut microflora improve the high-fat-diet-induced diabetes in mice through a mechanism associated with endotoxemia,” Diabetologia, Vol 50 No 11, pages 2374–83; Andromanakos, N, et al (2006), “Constipation of anorectal outlet obstruction: pathophysiology, evaluation and management,” Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Vol 21 No 4, pages 638–46.

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